Sunday, November 18, 2007

Joyful paintings in "Japan Envisions the West"


A group of maps sets the stage for Part I of "Japan Envisions the West: 16th-19th Century Japanese Art from the Kobe City Museum." They demonstrate the distortions of scale and location lodged in people's minds when European interactions with Japan began in the late 16th century. The collection of painted screens and scrolls, woodblock prints and assorted decorative arts highlights the early cultural exchange between Japan and the West and celebrates the 50th anniversary of the sister-city agreement between Kobe and Seattle.

A lovely woodblock print by the great 19th-century master Hokusai stands as a perfect emblem of the show. "Two Ladies Looking through a Telescope," from a series called "Fanciful Presentation of Seven Useless Habits," shows traditional Japanese women in their kimonos and manufactured hairdos mesmerized by the magic of an imported telescope. That image may seem incongruous, but stranger things crop up.

From distortions of place, "Japan" goes on to document the odd (and occasionally monstrous) cultural hybrids born when European painting and decorative styles began mingling with their Eastern counterparts. Japanese artists dabbled in the strange medium of oil paint and pondered such curious Western inventions as hot-air balloons and locomotives, and the unfathomable behavior of a Dutch man and wife who walk together arm in arm down the street. And what about those weirdly assembled white faces, with their pale hair and curly beards? The net effect of the artworks is a floating sense of dislocation. Where are we?

A 17th-century "Comptoir with Landscape Design" survives as a kind of cultural battle-of-the-bands that takes furniture design to new heights of ostentation. The Japanese-made lacquered-wood chest begins sanely with a spare and lovely gold and black landscape image. But that gets gussied up with a regiment of golden metal hinges. Then some Dutch craftsman apparently got hold of the piece and added a carved wooden stand so over-the-top with curves, flowers, frills and gold that the whole thing ends up resembling Cinderella's fairytale carriage.

What's on display now is the first segment of a two-part show. It ends Nov. 25. Beginning Nov. 30, SAM will host a two-day international symposium with presentations by Dutch, Japanese and American scholars. On Dec. 1, Part II of the exhibition will open to the public.

Beckoning from the adjacent galleries is the joyful exhibition "Gaylen Hansen: Three Decades of Painting," spotlighting more than 30 of Hansen's big, exuberantly colored, tacked-to-the-wall canvases. The casual presentation, which moves chronologically from the 1970s to the present, is part of their charm.

Hansen, who has lived in Palouse, Wash., since 1957, is one of the state's most admired and original painters. In a recent interview with The Times, Hansen talked about his early interest in illustrated books and how a copy of the novel "Don Quixote" made a big impression on him as a boy. It's nice to keep that famously misguided Spanish adventurer in mind as you wander through Hansen's show. Kernal Bentleg, a recurring character, stands as a sort of alter ego for the artist and roams the Palouse countryside on horseback in very quixotic way. There's a mythological undertow to the work even at its most humorous. The Kernal often finds himself face to face with the overwhelming force of nature, embodied in plagues of grasshoppers the size of porpoises, or a buffalo built like a tank.

Even Hansen's recent simple still lifes resonate with some kind of subversive meaning. One of my favorites is the 2003 "Yellow Jar and Glove," which is just that. A yellow jar with a dark lid standing shoulder to hip with a nearly black work glove. Just a jar and a glove, in a pool of yellow light with a pale shadow extending straight right, and a darker yellow line, like an escaped part of the painted frame, underscoring the image — so tense and unfathomable, so hard to turn away from.

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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