Personal symbols, totems, alter-egos are tricky. At once reflections and deflections of yourself, they might be worn as tattoos or put on as costumes. Gaylen Hansen, the great Northwest artist, has spent decades animating his paintings with his alter egos — The Kernal, a fisherman and a cowboy, who are often one and the same — along with dogs, fish, magpies, moons, gloves and other emblematic, almost cartoonish figures.
These eccentric characters are set within stark desert landscapes or ambiguous backgrounds of bold and loose brushwork. It could be personal expression at its finest and most self-centered, but Hansen deflects even more. He insists that formal concerns are at the heart of his paintings. Is his art about personal revelation? Oh, no. It’s all about composition or color contrast or beautifully scumbled (softened) paint application.
At 92, Hansen could be forgiven for taking it easy. Long retired from Washington State University, where he taught for 25 years, Hansen could just relax, taking in the sweeping views of the Palouse, in southeastern Washington where he lives, or of the Arizona desert, where he has long enjoyed spending time. (The open spaces and Western themes of these places are abundantly present in his works.)
But the exhibition at Linda Hodges Gallery is almost entirely made up of new work. This man has been busy in the past year and a half since his last exhibition at the gallery. So, what’s new, alongside the continued emblems and settings? The most obvious element is the color palette. Hansen has been experimenting with more vibrant color contrasts, not that his works were ever dull. The slim lines that he paints around the borders continue to be an important framing and contrasting device, but the reddish-oranges and royal blues seem to be even brighter, more insistent.
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In fact, he seems to be exploring a tension between liveliness and aggression. An old favorite, the wolflike dogs, are just a little more menacing. Here, they sometimes wear white masks, a motif we haven’t seen before. In art, dogs have been a symbol of fidelity and domestication for centuries. In Hansen’s works, they become feral, confronting us in packs, their eyes white or red and their bodies made up of slashing, jumbled brushwork.
The Kernal/Fisherman is also here but, in one painting, he is practically attacked by an enormous fish who is, perhaps, trying to rescue the little fish caught on the fisherman’s line. But wait: The belligerent fish and the fisherman begin to look a lot alike, with their profile heads, frontal eyes, and big bodies of deep green and red. Who is the aggressor? Who is in control of this agitated clash of life and death, man and nature? These are heavy questions, but they’re not suggested in a heavy-handed way.
And this is what makes Hansen’s works so powerful and enduring. The simple, occasionally childlike forms are symbolic without being overtly narrative. The totems and vigorous brushwork are expressive without being self-indulgent. We see the hand of the artist, along with his alter-egos, but Hansen deflects and re-presents his reality, leaving us in wide-open, pleasurable scenes that keep us just slightly on edge.