In each of two separate paintings there stands a solitary figure on horseback. One is a medieval knight, the other a cowboy. Each is centered on the canvas and their poses are alike. Behind them stretches an ashlar stone wall, its scraped impasto surface—inspired by similar walls the painter saw in Europe—is clearly as important as the figures standing before it. Eventually one may notice two subtle differences. The knight’s horse recoils from a pull on the reins, while the cowboy’s stretches out its neck as if sniffing what lies ahead. And the apparently continuous wall, which seems to run from one painting right into the next, actually ends in front of the cowboy, near the painting’s margin. That’s the trouble with legends: those who inhabit them never know how to behave.
Gaylen Hansens retrospective fills the Salt Lake Arts Center—all three upper galleries, the large space downstairs, and even the two small rooms in the back—leaving no room for doubt that this is a significant painter in possession of his art. It’s not just that none of the works is small and most run close to six feet tall. What allows them to fill space is their sheer exuberance: their lust for the ineffable thing that connects the eye and the mind. It becomes clear within seconds of entering Hansen’s world that this is a man who loves paint. He loves the look of it, anticipates the physical pleasure of moving it around, and revels in the full range of its application, from smearing it with the sweep of his arm across a canvas the size of an average wall, to going back with a tiny brush to enter detailed notations about the characters, animate and inanimate, that populate the tall tales his paintings tell.
Some viewers may make the mistake of thinking that, however much Hansen likes paint, he doesn’t like to paint. Apparently spending little time on preparation, but painting as quickly as one might draw with a brush, he makes no effort to give his subjects, or even the grounds on which they stand, anything like the degree of solid form traditionalists admire and look for in the art they seek out. Such a misunderstanding is particularly likely if Hansen’s work is seen only in postcard-sized reproductions that cannot hope to convey the full impact of the originals. At best, such a cursory look suggests an artist impatient to get on with his own cleverness; at worst, it appears he may be just another of today’s untrained and unskilled artists. It’s essential to see these unconventional and, until seen in person, unimaginable works for oneself.
We know from his résumé, and from the tribute contributed to the catalog by The Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson, that Hansen is a superb draftsman. We also learn, from his commentary in the catalog, that where we might expect depictions, he deliberately intends to deliver caricatures. “Caricature” is a style of art usually reserved for depicting well-known people, but Hansen finds its exaggeration just as useful and substantial in representing well-known things. It’s a better measure of Hansen’s ability, and his intention to paint the way he does, that everything in his work, however distorted, is instantly recognizable, even when shown out of context, oddly posed, and juxtaposed in highly unlikely or arbitrary groups. What might be mistaken for slap-dash scrawls are in fact carefully chosen images that are as scrupulously modeled as characters and things found in jokes and stories. A good yarn doesn’t tell any more than is necessary, and what it tells is rarely true in the conventional sense. Just so with Hansen’s painted tales, but like the storyteller, he knows exactly what essentials are necessary in order to nail the wit, which is to say the truth, of the story.
Hansen represents a generation of artists who turned their backs on New York and the pretences of Abstract Expressionism in order to make art drawn more directly from life as they found it in the open spaces of the West. His works are demotic, accessible, and full of fun. They are what the stories of Mark Twain would be if he’d been a painter instead of a writer. Although he shows himself in the classic predicament of the American artist achieving recognition—standing among a flock of stiff, formal magpies, disguised as one of them—his most characteristic pose is with his tongue in his cheek. What he’s observed about the landscape, nature, and human life is all shown here, in plain sight, but he “holds back.” The pleasure for the audience is to get a point that is not belabored; the pleasure for the artist is the nod, the sly smile, or the occasional laugh earned through indirection: a private joke shared among homespun sophisticates.
Every storyteller has certain subjects—icons—that he returns to and, in revisiting, endows with ever-greater meaning. Hansens’s best-known subject is Kernal Bentleg, whom he invokes like an alter-ego when his stories achieve some subjective level of self-reference. Yet trying to figure out precisely what anything here, even a fairly straightforward symbol like the Kernal, “stands for” is probably a fool’s errand. It’s not that fish, teapots, ducks, ladders, and tubes of paint can’t stand for things. But what fascinates Hansen is the ability of art—he specifies painting and sculpture—to convey the nature of the thing represented, and to convince us of its reality, This presence beyond mere appearance is the special property of art, and probably explains both why he paints and why he strips his painting of artifice and illusion, as though seeking the most efficient way to achieve it.
In preparing the exhibition and its accompanying catalog, Keith Wells, a curator at the Washington State University Museum of Art, spoke with Hansen about specific works in the show. Transcribed portions of their conversation make up the bulk of the catalog’s text. Curators and critics are rarely as strong off the cuff as we are in our written commentary, but Wells and Hansen give us a rare moment of intimacy with an artist in the presence of his art. While many artists find it difficult or invasive to try to put their thinking into verbal instead of visual form, those who can do so often penetrate further into the nature of art than their critics, who in the process of explaining may project more of themselves than they reveal of the artist. But when Hansen asserts the reasons why he either places an object in the center of the canvas—which he does to exploit the power of art to make us experience it—or else juxtaposes two or more objects, like a necktie and fish or a bison, a fish, and a tulip, each standing on its head, theory is replaced by practice.
Whether it’s the wild west vs. today’s version, gloves and paint tubes, or ladders and wall, all of Hansen’s paintings are juxtapositions: collisions as arbitrary and authentic as that of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table—if occasionally less strange. It’s the storyteller’s primary tactic: bring some things together and see what happens. First and foremost, Hansen brings together artifice and reality: the canvas-and-paint version and the other thing. He ponders, and we end up pondering with him, what it is that makes a fish swimming through tulips or sandwiched between paint tubes more memorable than the one we ate for dinner last week. If science tells us the best way to memorize a list of objects is to make up a story about them, he adds the greater insight that it’s also the best way to get to know them. There is pleasure in encountering things with the eye, and there is satisfaction in getting to know them with the mind. Ultimately, Gaylen Hanson is privileged to enjoy the meeting eye and mind. And it’s our good fortune when he comes along to show us how good it feels.
Gaylen Hansen: Three Decades of Painting continues at the Salt Lake Art Center through May 31. There is a full-color trade book produced for this exhibit by Marquand Books of Seattle. The 120-page publication contains more than 100 color plates.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.