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Art Review : Gaylen Hansen's Rural Fantasies

February 02, 1987|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Times Art Writer

What happens when a quintessentially Western artist abandons hope of making his mark in the East? If he is Gaylen Hansen, who was holed up in a teaching position at Washington State University for 25 years and now works out of a studio in the eastern Washington town of Palouse, he starts painting what amuses him and becomes famous in spite of himself.

With a large exhibition, "Gaylen Hansen: The Paintings of a Decade, 1975-1985" now concluding a 1 1/2-yearlong tour, at the Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park (through March 1), and another 17 paintings in a show at the Koplin Gallery in West Hollywood (through Feb. 21), Hansen has reason to gloat.

But you won't find him glad-handing at the galleries. Instead, you'll meet the artist's alter ego cavorting in primitive-looking paintings. "The Kernal," a bearded, pipe-smoking, cowboy-style Everyman and a dead-ringer for Hansen, is the human star of rural fantasies that feature a cast of wolf-dogs, tiger-striped bears and floating fish.

It's a macho world of camping and fishing, but Hansen paints such a kindly mixture of primal terror and sprightly adventure that his work comes off as a pleasantly scarifying farce.

Don't worry, he seems to say, the huge white dog face that rises like a moon over the sleeping "Kernal" is probably too benevolent to devour the old guy. The title of another work tells us that a sheepish canine in a Rousseau-esque garden is only "Pretending to Be Ferocious." An authentically disturbing image of a "Bound Dog" in another work is ameliorated by the ridiculous sight of "The Kernal" riding a white horse through a landscape so sweet it might grace a candy box.

Still, there is a tension about this art--a rickety balance of nature and man-against-beast--that keeps you on edge. You wonder what's to prevent that pack of dogs from nipping into that enormous floating trout or that leaping fish from gobbling up the man in that little boat? Didn't a wolf-dog take a bite out of the moon in that painting over there? And doesn't Hansen paint a place where crickets and grasshoppers grow bigger than men, where fish leave the water to float in the sky, where a woman holding a mirror sees the image of a witch?

Yes, but it's all a dream. "The Kernal" usually sleeps through it or can't see the looming danger because smoke from his campfire is in his eyes. Hansen cloaks his hero in a mantle of naivete and protects his viewers with the distance of fantasy and wit.

According to the illustrated catalogue, Hansen comes by these startling visions honestly. He has always lived in the West. Born and raised in Utah, he attended several colleges there and in California, finally earning his Master of Fine Arts degree from USC in 1953 at 32. Though he was educated during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism and he kept abreast of subsequent reigning styles, he said in a catalogue interview that he eventually realized, "I probably wasn't going to connect much with modern art or New York or any kind of mainstream developments, so I might as well do what amused me primarily."

Observing such home-grown oddities as dogs' heads that seem to emerge disembodied from tall grass, giant tulips that deliver the promise of spring, fearsome grasshoppers that attack the fields and crop dusters that retaliate with pesticide--all on the Palouse area's sparsely populated high plateau--he began to spin his surroundings into narrative paintings.

"It's kind of corny, having animals behave like humans or relate to humans. But I get a kick out of it. So I do it," he said.

The paintings rise above potentially corny subject matter by striking a chord composed of free-spirited adventure and primal fear--and through sheer visual power. Setting forth strong, simple shapes on unstretched canvas and propelling them into space with a vigorous directional thrust, Hansen paints both dry surfaces and rich, feathery forms. His eccentric brand of painting ties into styles as current as Neo-Expressionism and as ancient as Assyrian reliefs.

His rugged Western persona puts us in mind of other self-styled loners such as William Wiley and Robert Arneson, but Hansen's work betrays none of the defensiveness or cynicism that can make so-called regional art seem peevishly constricted. Hansen's territory is the wide-open terrain of life turned into a dream. Its perils are all the more real because they appear absurd.

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