There is something immensely satisfying about a bison, a fish and a red tulip, all of commensurate size, standing on their heads next to each other.
While this scene obviously cannot occur in real life, it can in art: "Bison, Fish & Tulip," one of 41 large-scale artworks in "Gaylen Hansen: Three Decades of Paintings" at the Salt Lake Art Center through May.
This whimsical exhibit introduces viewers to an outlandish mise-en-scene where clusters of incongruous characters interact in the most unexpected and visually peculiar ways.
Hansen's world is populated by an assortment of animals, insects, fish and a recurrent bearded frontiersman named Kernal Bentleg. The paintings, executed in his spontaneous, raw, neo-Expressionist style (reminiscent of Phillip Guston and Susan Rothenberg) together with his employment of distortion of scale are powerhouses of design, figure/ground relationship, color, line and texture.
Born in Garland, Utah, in 1921, Hansen spent his early years working on his grandparents' farm.
"I held the reins on horse-drawn wagons and farm machinery," Hansen writes in the exhibit's 120-page accompanying catalog. The artist also rode saddle horses and worked with cows, sheep, goats, pigs, dogs, cats, geese, ducks, chickens and pigeons, all characters that would eventually inhabit the riotous terrain of his future canvases.
At 17, he moved to Salt Lake City to live with his father. There he attended West High School and frequently skipped class to paint watercolors along the Jordan River.
In 1939, the artist moved to Los Angeles to live with his mother. There he enrolled at the Otis Art Institute for two years before returning to Salt Lake City. Back in Utah, Hansen attended the Art Barn School of Fine Arts.
After receiving an undergraduate degree from Utah State University, Hansen studied at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, on a scholarship. He completed his master's in fine arts in 1953.
In 1957, Hansen moved to eastern Washington where he taught art for 25 years at Washington State University, Pullman.
By the mid-1970s, he decided to give up trying to follow current art trends and focus instead on subjects found within the confines of his 10-acre yard in Palouse, Wash.
In the catalog's opening essay, exhibition curator Keith Wells states that Hansen has a "spectacular affinity for all of the creatures, and even the most banal objects, that inhabit the world around him." According to Wells, the artist's paintings are endearing because Hansen depicts the animals with such affectionate vitality.
When questioned concerning the composition of his paintings, Hansen replied, "I have two basic approaches to painting when it comes to subject matter. One is to paint a single object centered, more or less, on the canvas, and the other is to organize multiple objects."
In her book on Hansen, Vicki Halper referred to these two structures as "monumental form" or "allover dance."
One of the artist's more intriguing "monumental forms" is "Striped Tie & Grasshopper" (oil on canvas, 60-by-60 inches, 1993). This painting consists of a large red-striped tie and a large green grasshopper, both standing vertically, centered in the canvas. "The light and dark diagonals in the necktie and the grasshopper connect with each other," writes Hansen, "that's part of what is interesting to me."
His use of complementary colors and the asymmetrical positioning of one trailing grasshopper leg keep the composition from becoming stagnant.
"Man Eating" (oil on canvas, 48-by-60 inches, 1994) is a classic example of the artist's "allover dance." This is not a humorous painting; it illustrates the two-sided nature of man with all the potential menace.
"These days you can see the darker side of humanity anytime," writes Hansen. "I have a side of me that wants to do real gutsy-looking paintings, to balance the more pleasing ones, I suppose, and to let the more Expressionist approach come out."
For many, the best painting in the exhibit will be "The Contortionist" (oil on canvas, 60-by-72 inches, 1991). In this work, a man and a wolf stand in front of a brick wall. Bent over, their head between their legs, each faces off with the other by sporting a stupid grin. It is an impossibly difficult pose for a biped; completely impossible for a quadruped, yet Hansen makes it seem totally feasible. You also can't help but think they are mooning each other. It is very bizarre. Yet the figure/ground created, the brushwork achieved, the complimentary color scheme and the mysterious meaning make this painting simply wonderful.
Because his style is neo-Expressionist, some may conclude that Hansen's paintings lack what they consider to be conventional art skills; the works may even be deemed crude and ugly. However, these very factors make the paintings contemporary and full of the same wry humor found in the works of local artist, Brian Kershisnik.
What: Gaylen Hansen: Three Decades of Paintings
Where: Salt Lake Art Center, 20 S. West Temple, Salt Lake City
When: Through May 31
Gallery hours: Tuesday-Thursday,11 a.m.-6 p.m.;
Friday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.;
Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.;
Closed Sunday, Monday and holidays
How much: Free
E-mail: [email protected]