Painter of the Palouse

by Carrie Scozzaro & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & rt critics like to categorize "schools of art" and genres. It's a handy tool, but it rarely tells the whole story. Consider Gaylen Hansen, a prolific Palouse-based painter whose 30-year career is now on view simultaneously at WSU and the MAC.

"I've been called almost everything," Hansen said in a 2001 Albuquerque Journal article. "Some people think of me as a folk artist. Some people think I'm a surrealist and some think I'm an expressionist and several other things." Certainly one can see expressionistic paint handling, metaphors and motifs, and unusual juxtapositions of abstracted imagery -- wolves, grasshoppers, tulips, buffalo, a figure he calls the Kernal. But none of that tells the whole story.

"Folk art" implies, at worst, a step away from "outsider art" or less than optimum art skills; at best, it's a naivet & eacute; otherwise refreshing in the jaded art world. To say that Hansen is folksy is a misnomer. Quirky, irreverent, highly accessible to audiences of all ages and interests -- yes. Naive or unskilled? Quite the opposite.

Educated at the Otis Art Institute, the University of Utah and the University of Southern California, Hansen has travelled, studied, taught and made art since the 1940s. His dossier outlines his experiments with assemblage, his encounters with hippie culture, and the influence of travel, contemporary art movements and such fellow artists as Wiliam T. Wiley and Roy DeForest. Yet it wasn't until Hansen was in his 50s and had settled into life as a WSU professor that he seemed to discover that he could (and should) just paint what he wanted.

Hansen talks about painting subjects he knows and that amuse him, including nature. "Invasion" (1998) shows a horde of cars having met its match against an opposing force of giant grasshoppers and crickets. This is more than just a pairing of the absurd: As in many of his paintings, nature prevails, not man. For all of Hansen's common appeal and wittiness, there is a strong undercurrent of social and humanistic concern, perhaps even criticism (a la Mark Twain's sideways comments about the foibles of man).

"I don't generally have symbolic meanings or metaphors in mind when I paint," says Hansen in the (gorgeous, full-color, worth coveting) book accompanying the exhibition, Gaylen Hansen: Three Decades of Painting. Yet "often the paintings turn out to be symbolic or metaphoric," he says. On top of the symbolism is Hansen's subtle yet powerful mastery of composition -- e.g. how the bulbous bug-eyes in "Invasion" morph into the rounded form of so many tires, or how Hansen deftly bisects the space just slightly in favor of the insects.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & H & lt;/span & ansen has managed to succeed where others have not. He lives in a rural (not urban, art-centered) area that he loves while creating art that is appreciated worldwide. Whereas other artists might develop in linear fashion -- from figurative to expressionist to pop to neo-something-or-other -- Hansen has developed a style that acknowledges disparate influences yet builds upon and reinforces earlier work with candor and freshness.

For example, Hansen describes the influence of Indian miniature paintings, where value and hue are keyed to the color of the ground. In "Dog & amp; Magpies" (1984), a sienna-to-brown umber dog on an ochre patch of ground is menaced by abstracted, black magpies against a whitish sky. Through color choice and angular form, Hansen creates a tension that parallels the drama between the species. By 1994, the magpies had become planes in "Man Eating," easily one of Hansen's most explicit and (uncharacteristically) pessimistic paintings. Here the tension is overtly expressed in frenetic, red mark-making and the contrasting white and black figure. Hansen uses similar elements in "Composition With Striped Legs" (1995), reminiscent of Picasso's Harlequin while seeming less sinister than surreal.

Motifs unify this body of work like a well-written story. The Kernal, described by critics as Hansen's Don Quixotic "alter-ego," appears as a knight, a cowboy or an adventurous grasshopper-rider. Like any good storyteller, however, Hansen knows how to throw in a good twist. Urban elements appear like foreshadowing in the form of suited figures or simple neckties. Brick walls, fences and buildings create a sense of menace.

Other departures in the exhibition include at least two portraits -- one of Hansen and his artist-wife, Heidi Oberheide, and one of Hansen at his favorite fishing spot. There is also a seascape, done while Hansen visited the Oregon coast. And "Red Dog & amp; Kernal" (1981; aka "Sleeping Cowboy") pays homage to Henri Rousseau's similarly composed "The Sleeping Gypsy."

Hansen's object paintings -- "Yellow Jar & amp; Glove" is my favorite -- operate on a different level than his visual narratives. They're more formal. In the preface to the book, comic illustrator Gary Larsen (who long ago took Hansen's figure drawing class) describes Hansen's "mastery of shapes." A more accurate description would include Hansen's mastery of space... and shape and form.

Hansen negates the expected perspective through flattened planes of thickly layered color, yet even as he flattens space, he is ever conscious of its illusory depth. "Bison, Fish & amp; Tulip" (1994) has the aforementioned items huddled together atop a rectangular edge. The forms bear the characteristic Hansen abstraction -- a cross between pictographic simplicity and humorous caricaturization -- while subtle highlights and shading lend the tulip a Robert Mapplethorpe or Georgia O'Keefe voluptuousness. Swatches of color -- red, brown, yellow, echoes of the bison and fish -- pull your eye around the space of the painting in a manner that is purposeful yet ambiguous.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & his symbiotic relationship between artfulness and intuition -- in Hansen's use of color, assemblage of images and use of space -- is the enervating force that permeates every canvas. Like prairie winds or the endless rambling of his beloved Clearwater River, there is a sense of time and movement in Hansen's paintings. Sometimes it's barely contained, as in his recent "Ducks" or the parfleche-like "Blue Fish." Sometimes that energy pulses subtly, as in "The Artist's Studio" (1992), which seemingly encapsulates Hansen's artmaking process and philosophy. Hansen believes in looking at and living with his paintings -- the "revelation once it's finished" -- and in the necessity of developing a critical eye for whether or not a painting works.

And work they do, individually and in this impressive collection. The only drawback to this dual exhibition is that you'll need to visit both locations to see it all. Or wait until it travels to the Seattle Art Museum.

Regardless, Gaylen Hansen's work appeals like a treasured novel. Devour each image quickly with the same joyous appetite with which Hansen has lived his life. Then go back and savor each painting individually, reflecting on your favorite characters, the foreshadowings and the subtle plot twists.

And feel free to read into what you see. "Much in this world is upside down," Hansen says. "When you turn things upside down, you also know what is right side up."

"Gaylen Hansen: Three Decades of Painting" runs through April 8 at the WSU Museum of Art. Gallery hours: Monday-Saturday from 10 am-4 pm (Thursday until 7 pm). Free. Visit or call (509) 335-1910.

A tandem exhibit runs through Aug. 5 at the MAC, 2316 W. First Ave. Artist talk and reception: Saturday, Feb. 17, at 4 pm. Gallery hours: Tuesday-Sunday from 11 am-5 pm. Visit or call 456-3931.