Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Gaylen Hansen

Gaylen Hansen is a painter from eastern Washington, which, unlike coastal Seattle, is largely semi-arid, much of it desert chaparral as you move away from the Cascade mountains. Hansen’s paintings, mostly oil on canvas, reflect that environment in his palette and subject matter, which often include cowboys, horses, cattle, birds, locusts, and other animals. But they are not literal representations of the place. Rather, the pictures tend to bizarre surrealism. According to the Seattle Art Museum (, his category is neo-expressionism, whatever that is.

I liked the pictures because of their humor and imagination, and because of the colors, which recall those of the Washington desert country. For example, he shows an impressionistic trout standing vertically on its nose, on a table next to a steer of the same size also on its nose, and an inverted tulip. Why? No reason, but it’s funny and the colors are great and the rhythm is almost musical. I also like that the canvases are not framed, just nailed or stapled to the wall.

All the pictures have a flat, poster-like, or cartoony quality. In the 30-year retrospective that SAM is currently showing, I didn’t see any rounded, 3-D figures. The pictures also have a certain dreamlike quality and I can see clear echoes of Henri Rousseau, and the surrealism, or postmodernism of Philip Guston, who also developed an eccentric collection of signature images.

In the book sold at the exhibit (which I skimmed but did not buy), the artist acknowledges the influence of cartoonist Gary Larson, but that could be misleading. These are not cartoons, only juxtapositions of images that happen to be humorous because they are recognizable representations of common objects. If they were similarly shaped blobs of color that did not represent objects, the pictures would not be funny, but they would be just as attractive because of the color and composition. Maybe. I’m not sure about that, but I think so.

Hansen’s pictures have been seen all around the world, but he is still not well-known and is often referred to as a regional artist. Maybe this show, which runs through January 6, 2008 at the SAM, will raise his stock. I hope so.

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