Seattle artist David Kane has worked as a handyman for the Girl Scout Council, a cab driver, a janitor at a synagogue, and — during...

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Seattle artist David Kane has worked as a handyman for the Girl Scout Council, a cab driver, a janitor at a synagogue, and — during a period he calls “Christmas in hell” — for a firm that did holiday decorations for shopping malls.

Kane, 56, also did a stint in database management for “a white-collar sweatshop” (some would call it a law firm) back in the pre-personal-computer days of the 1980s. And, later, in a more typical career move, he taught for a few years at Cornish College of the Arts. For the past 20 years Kane’s own artwork has remained something of an underground phenomenon, appreciated by critics, other artists and some devoted collectors, but far from well-known. Curator Robin Held hopes that will begin to change Saturday, when the Frye Art Museum opens Kane’s retrospective “Fiat Mambo.”

In typical Kane fashion, the work in the show ranges broadly and focuses intensely, from forays into cubism through close-ups of UFOs, and beyond. You’ll see surreal replays of Edward Hopperesque scenes, ethereal black-and-white paintings of classical gardens and a series of little monoprint portraits called “Kane’s Book of Physiognomy.”

It’s not that Kane hasn’t shown his work around the region: He just hasn’t had the best luck with galleries. Kane likes to quip that he has driven several galleries out of business — which, of course, isn’t true. He showed most recently at the respected Esther Claypool Gallery, which closed in 2003, and before that at Linda Cannon, which shut down in 1998. On occasion, Kane has resorted to finding a storefront, printing up some invitations, buying a case of wine and making like a gallery. In a pinch, he can always hang his paintings at the Two Bells tavern. Kane now acts as resident curator for the popular Belltown hangout.

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Artist lecture: David C. Kane: 2 p.m. June 23.

Studio workshop: Painting with David C. Kane, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Aug. 14 — 17.

Gallery tour with artist David C. Kane and Robin Held, Frye chief curator and director of exhibitions and collections, 7 p.m. Aug. 23.

Magic Lantern: Talks on Film and Art. They Came from Outer Space: 1950s Sci-fi on Film, with film critic Robert Horton, 2 p.m. Sept. 16.

Rolon Bert Garner, a longtime Northwest art maven and former co-owner of the Two Bells, got to know Kane in the late 1970s, when Kane was driving cab at night and would stop by the tavern after his shift to unwind. “I think he is one of the underrated talents in the Northwest. He’s had bad luck professionally,” Garner said. “He’s never had any real backing per se. He’s never pursued it. I’ve been after him for years to get his work shown in Portland, at least. He’s always lived hand to mouth.”

For Kane, who has long rented a studio behind the Two Bells, it’s a question of putting his energy into making art rather than marketing himself. “In that respect, I guess I’m sort of old-fashioned. I should probably get to work on my Web site and put together a couple handsome brochures … I guess I know what to do,” he said. “It makes for this high stress thing trying to be the flavor of the month. A lot of people end up chasing fads rather than doing whatever they do.”

Basically, what motivates him is simple: “I just like to paint, and I’m curious.”

Unharnessed curiousity

Kane was born in Bellingham and grew up on Bainbridge Island, where he went to high school. “The minute I could get off the island, I did,” Kane said during a recent visit at his studio. He studied painting at the University of Washington during a time when noted artists Michael Spafford, George Tsutakawa, Jacob Lawrence, Alden Mason and Robert Jones were on the faculty.

Kane says he took a class from most everybody in the department, soaking up various points of view and styles. But he was interested in cubism, an early-20th-century innovation that didn’t have many proponents during the 1970s. So Kane and some friends did their own study of the formal reasoning behind it, the way multiple perspectives can be condensed into a single flat image. That’s classic Kane — intellectually probing and not willing to go along with the latest trend unless there’s a good reason to.

Exhibition preview

“David C. Kane: Fiat Mambo,” opens Saturday and continues 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays (until 8 p.m. Thursdays), noon- 5 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 7 at The Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Ave., Seattle; free (206-622-9250 or

Kane doesn’t fit into the mold of current art-school graduates, who tend to have a career game plan and can at times seem more intent on instant celebrity than developing their work. Making art is part of an ongoing exploration that motivates Kane and cascades into a wide range of reading, looking at art, listening to classical jazz and blues and mulling things over. For a while, his unharnessed curiosity led to a scattershot approach to his work. “Early on the paintings were more in and of themselves,” he said, joking: “Another group show from Dave Kane!”

Now he funnels his interest into a progression of paintings that look deep into a subject or theme and keeps pushing to see how much it will yield, what he calls “in-depth investigations of one thing or another.” That includes suburban life, film noir, mythology and great art of the past.

And then there are UFOs. Kane got so intrigued by the notion of flying saucers and “an amalgam of things supernatural” that he curated a show around the subject in 1997 for the Center on Contemporary Art. It was called “They Came Here First.” Various artists submitted images of UFOs, little green men, alien abductions and other irresistible subjects.

Kane doesn’t buy into the notion that such things exist, but finds the speculation entertaining. He also sees a deeper meaning in peoples’ attraction to the idea of extraterrestrials. “It’s interesting, and a lot of that stuff kind of stands in these days for the miraculous things that artists liked to illustrate over the years. There’s an undercurrent of pop culture that’s like spirituality for agnostics.”

For an artist like Kane with a strong sense of art history, edgy contemporary subjects provide a vehicle for showing off some good old-fashioned technique. “In a weird kind of way, it’s like adopting pop-culture icons gives you permission to paint in certain ways that might otherwise be boring. Adding a spaceship gives you something else to think of in terms of a landscape.”

Looking ahead

Kane seems to have the ingredients for success all lined up: So why isn’t he better known?

“It’s a question the show raises,” says Frye Art Museum curator Held. “In the ’90s he came into his own when he was no longer represented by a gallery and gave up teaching. He’s a better artist for it, because he was committed to painting everyday and reading and the things that sustain him. But it didn’t give him the kind of exposure that attracts attention. This show is 20-plus years of work and his first museum exhibition. It introduces his work to a larger audience — and I hope it will be the beginning.”

Plans for the retrospective had been in the works for about a year, when Kane got the bad news: He had lung cancer.

As further test results came through, a tumor on his thyroid gland showed up as well. In the past year, Kane — who quit drinking in 1993 and quit smoking six years ago — has had three surgeries and 18 weeks of chemotherapy. Of course, with no job, he didn’t have health insurance.

“Certain people just stepped up to organize everything.” said Kane, who has never married and lives alone in an apartment on Capitol Hill. “That allowed me to basically collapse … “

From then on, a guy who says he had never been sick or had anything to do with the health-care system was suddenly seeing doctors two or three times a week, doling out medical coupons and relying on friends for everything, from cooking to taking notes at doctor appointments to strategizing about treatment options. Exhausted and foggy-headed from chemo, Kane spent months not being able to read or paint. For distraction, he watched Monty Python videos. Then he watched them again — and again.

“They were funny and absurd and just kind of suited the mood of the whole process,” Kane said. “You come home from chemo or a doctor’s appointment and put them on just to divert yourself from the sheer terror of the situation.”

As he began to feel better — the cancer is now in remission — Kane could start planning for his retrospective. He and Held looked back over his career and chose work that she felt would best show his range. Then she brought Kane a little dollhouse-sized model of the galleries along with scale reproductions of the paintings, so that he could begin thinking about out how to arrange the show.

For Kane, the show couldn’t have come at a better time — but it won’t likely change his methods.

Over the years, he said, he’s come to different conclusions about what makes a good painting. “It’s graphic strength, various felicities of execution — you know it when you see it.

“Ultimately that’s what you end up doing. You just keep painting until it looks right.”

Sheila Farr:

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