New York

Gaylen Hansen

Monique Knowlton Gallery

Strapped down, tied up—the motif of binding, like the repressed, returns eternally in Gaylen Hansen’s primitively rendered images. Binding for protection, yes, against a world completely out of joint, lunatic and often sterile. The full moon waxes steadily from painting to painting. Dogs, mad, one infers, are straight-jacketed in crisscrossing strips like malevolent babies wrapped in their own umbilical cords. In one of these two Bound Dog works, straps stave the background as well, jailing the canine and gift wrapping the canvas. Hansen’s vision of culture is pessimistic. He sees civilizations, a kind of footstool with animal feet in Black Cat Attacking Stag, as the basis for a series of discontents: carcasses piling up on the ottoman, with the vanquishing Hun (black cat) on top (because of a tangle of leaf and limb, although only one corpse is fully described, many are insinuated).

“Binding,” however, can be parsed for functions other than protection, and Hansen considers its different meanings in speech, or in the unspeakable: the sadistic, the scatological. A man in Fishing on the North Fork strings his catch between poles looped with rope and staked to the ground while waiting for the next victim to take the line. He’s demonic looking, with pointed ears, chevron eyes, hair twisted into horns, and hands so unarticulatedly tapered they could be hooves. The fisher of men, turned anti-Christ, is incarcerating souls for the simple crime of existence. Chicken and Compost with Tulips first puns on the costive aspects of being bound up, fencing in a pile of manure, and then posits an anal retentive theory of fertility by trimming it with tulips. In another painting, one of these tulips, huge, grows out of the crotch of a seated woman, who licks its stem. Not only has the traditionally female symbol of the flower been appropriated by the phallic, but the very contours of the crude, dwarfed figure have been aggrandized into a series of exaggerated peaks, including her tumescent, gravity-defying trail of hair. Masters and Johnson meet electro-shock therapy.

All this is the “story” of the show. Each painting contributes to it, but do all work equally well? We seem to be in a peculiar moment of history when, on the one hand, having recognized the validity of more than one mode of painting, we are settling down to the establishment of genres, as the Italian Renaissance finally did with literature, based not on subject matter but treatment, i.e., realism, imagism, abstraction, etc. (within the category naïf you might even talk about rural naïfs, such as Hansen, and urban naïfs, such as Roger Brown and Hollis Sigler). On the other hand, we are simultaneously engaged in a romantic revolt against all rigid barriers between these classes. The result is a kind of polymorphous perversity in which, as one character in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow says, “all notes [are] . . . truly equal at last.” But if the sources of pleasure have become multiplicitous, the quality of it may still vary, and that’s true even if one recognizes a genre called “naive.” Such work, because it is intensely quixotic, is always in danger of “flying off into the circumambient gas” (to other types, other dangers). Two things will keep it on the ground: an intensity of emotional charge overbearing or justifying structural shortcomings, and formal expertise. The problem is that, since some of Hansen’s works are sophisticated, his really ugly paintings seem disingenuous. Those that do not carry the iconographical wallop of the tulip lady but share its rudimentary placement and execution appeal to our prejudices not to our emotions, an attempt to win an argument through the propagandistic fallacy of the “plain folks” device. Of course, when both individualism (rugged or otherwise) and pictorial conventions have been endorsed, it is no longer possible to claim immunity from a point by point assessment. It does become possible to talk, once again, about “masterpieces.” Black Cat and Bound Dog #1 and #2 are Hansen’s masterpieces and make the other works, while contributing to the obsessive theme, fall short judged on their own merits, standards into which Hansen has roped himself.

Jeanne Silverthorne