The many masks of modern art
I like an art that sings, bubbles, and prances. That casts aside doubts and fears - and sees the creative act as a leap of pure joy. I seldom find it, however, and for good reason. Art is generally reserved for more serious and solemn occasions, for probings into human realities, social issues, moral dilemmas, or formal complexities or ideals. And if it isn't busy with these, it is trying to establish new stylistic or technical frontiers, hammer out new areas of monumentality, or become more inventive or idiosyncratic.
In other words, art seldom has time for joyousness or generosity of spirit, or, for that matter, for expressions of goodwill or good humor.
The few major 20th-century artists who do reflect these qualities - Paul Klee , Joan Miro, Alexander Calder - had first to make their mark as highly innovative formalists. Only after they had done so were they fully accepted and enjoyed for their wit, humor, and benevolence.
It's almost as though we are made uneasy by, or resent, an art that smiles.
I suspect that we who write about art are largely responsible for that. How often have we tried to rationalize the delight we feel before certain lighthearted and fun-filled works of art by claiming for them levels of weighty seriousness never intended by the artist? How often have we attributed philosophical ideas to the artist of which he was unaware, and which, at any rate, were foreign to his character and creative attitude?
Yet, aren't we merely reflecting a larger cultural point of view when we do so? A broader and more generally accepted notion of what life is all about? A belief that joy and laughter - and most certainly wholehearted fun - are somehow evasions of reality? That, in fact, to enjoy life fully, to revel and delight in it, is to deny life's deepest truths?
Why that is, I'm not quite certain - although I imagine our Puritan forefathers had something to do with it. At any rate, we seem to feel that unless we see life as serious and solemn, even, in a way, as tragic, we are missing its point: and that unless art, whose aim we believe it is to reflect reality and life, echoes this attitude, it too will miss the point of existence, and thus fail to fulfill its appointed role.
In point of fact, nothing could be further from the truth. To insist that life is only a solemn occasion, and that art must reflect this attitude for it truly to be art, is to miss the point of a great deal of what life and art are all about.
One of the great functions of art is to help us survive. At moments of doubt, pain, or despair it can serve as a conduit toward beauty, understanding, and acceptance, and can remind us that life is indeed beautiful and worth fighting for.
But to do so art must be true and non-evasive, must confront and reflect not only reality at its most painful, but at its most beautiful and meaningful as well. It must, in other words, present evidence of a transcendence over chaos and despair.
One way to do this is through a profound monumentality that reminds us of life's grandeur and design (Michelangelo, Cezanne). Another is through empathy and depth of characterization (Rembrandt). Others include a passionate and life-enhancing vision of existence (Rubens); a sense of everyday perfection (Vermeer); ideal perfection (Mondrian); numerous varieties of formal expressions of order, ideal beauty, metaphysical ideas, intimations of the divine; or a totally painterly appreciation of the ripeness and delightfulness of life and living.
In short, art is all-inclusive, and can be anything from a solemn dirge to a joyous celebration.
It can also be just plain fun, sparkling, and effervescent - full of delightful references to life's quirkier and wackier moments. Just as there is a time and place in our lives for fun and games, so is there an appropriate place in art for laughter and good cheer.One artist who obviously feels that way is Gaylen Hansen, a painter of sly, tongue-in-cheek canvases that are generally very large, simply and ''innocently'' painted pictorial projections of the inner workings of a wildly imaginative and idiosyncratic creative attitude.Paintings that are, in other words, witty, eccentric, iconoclastic, free-spirited, fun-filled, and truly delightful.One could almost say that Hansen paints fairy tales, except that his paintings of giant, upended fish, huge grasshoppers dwarfing tiny men, mountains that turn out to be heads of dogs, clusters of merry ducks, joyously leaping fish, and practically anything else relating to the odd and eccentric behavior of members of the animal and vegetable kingdoms, seem more mythic and monumental than the stuff of which fantasy and children's tales are made.By that I mean that he takes the most commonplace of things and gives them the odd, slightly off-kilter kind of monumentality we normally associate with Egyptian tomb-paintings, Assyrian profile art, or certain types of Australian and South American primitive art. In his 1976 ''Large Green Fish Bumping a Duck,'' for instance, the mood is quite stark and primal - until we catch on to the humor of the piece and realize that we are dealing here with a wonderfully ''off the wall'' creative mentality - totally charming, but also totally devoid of anything cute or coy.This lack of the self-conscious coyness which is altogether too prevalent in most animal art puts his creatures closer in spirit to the lion in Rousseau's ''The Sleeping Gypsy'' than to the animals of any other major 20th-century artist, except possibly those of Marc Chagall.We may know that his fish, horses, dogs, birds, cats, and grasshoppers are doing odd and wonderfully kooky things, but they don't, and that makes quite a difference.Even Hansen's major protagonist, ''Kernal Bentleg,'' a tiny, bewhiskered Western-type character who obviously represents Hansen himself, seems not to find the odd goings-on in these paintings at all unusual. He accepts them as the norm, even when he and his horse are impossibly ambushed by 12 leaping fish, or when he finds himself confronted by a landscape of dog heads. In both cases, the Kernal carries on as though nothing unusual were occurring, just as do the resident characters in Alice in Wonderland.It is this calm acceptance of the wildly impossible that sets up the humor of Hansen's art and takes it out of the realm of mere illustration or fantasy. Hansen's world is a real world. Not, certainly, our world, but one which runs parallel and very close to it, with laws that are only slightly distorted versions of the laws we and our world obey - and which, therefore, make some kind of illogically logical sense to us.Although ''Leaping Fish and Moon'' is not really typical of Hansen's paintings (it is simpler, much less humorous, and more lyrical), it is my favorite of those I've seen. Almost eight feet wide, rather muted in color, and gloriously exultant in mood, it is one of the strongest images of exuberance and life I have seen of late.The only touch of humor is the small head of the duck appearing over the water's edge, and it is humorous only because of its incongruity. Everything else sings or leaps for joy, from the small bird at lower left to the moon centered in the sky. And the fish is the very personification of life, energy, and well-being.What makes it more wonderful still is that Hansen's art evolved on the West Coast, in Washington to be precise, and that he has had very few dealings with the art world as such. What this proves is that if the talent and creative imagination are there, an artist doesn't need the hotbed atmosphere of a major center to find his voice, or to establish its cultural relevance.