The Seattle art scene has gone through many changes in the past thirty years. The gallery scene has grown and prospered, museums have expanded or moved to new locations, new artists and art movements have emerged. Amidst all the change, one thing has remained constant. Once every year and a half or so, with nearly clock-like regularity, Seattle painter Paul Havas has had a one-man show at the Woodside/Braseth Gallery. His current solo exhibit is his sixteenth at the gallery since 1970, which certainly sets some kind of a record. Here with our review is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
Fortunately for those who regularly attend his shows, Paul Havas is an artist who hates to repeat himself. He seems to use the space between exhibits to rethink yet again exactly what it is he is doing, and each of his shows has a slightly different focus, and a slightly different spin. Like a novelist writing an interlocking series of books, Havas revisits certain main characters again and again, but each time the point of view has shifted just a bit — he and we get to look at a favorite subject with fresh eyes.
The main focus of most of Havas’s attention for all these years has been the muted tones and colors of the Northwest landscape. He lived for years in the farmhouse-dotted flatlands of the Skagit Valley, with the lumpy San Juan Islands to the West and the craggy Cascades to the East. Farmhouse, mountain, and island have thus become Havas trademarks, but so have, since his move to the city, slightly stylized views of downtown skyscrapers and industrialized river banks.
Havas’s realist work has always been influenced by his early experiments in abstraction. His early work included paintings whose only subject matter was form, shape and color. When he later turned to the landscape, he saw it in similar terms — as a collection of abstract pictorial elements that also happened to be trees, buildings, hills, and so forth. Though most of his pictures are based on a particular location, Havas will move, redesign, and recreate existing elements to make the picture work, exact truth to nature be damned. Geometry rules, artistic selection and simplification is everywhere.
The witty and visually rewarding works in the current show both revisit and expand on these familiar Havas preoccupations. The distinct rounded shape of Lummi Island, for example, appears again and again, serving for Havas as his Mount Saint Victoire, the French crag that became a virtual obsession for Paul Cezanne. But here, rather than painting the island directly, Havas includes it (and other familiar scenes) as paintings within paintings, framed and hanging in complicated interiors based loosely on Havas’s own house.
The element of autobiography and self-awareness is a very strong presence. In “Entry Table & Painting,” for example, a luminous soft focus view of Lummi —hangs above a table set with several small objects. One object is a model of a house, echoed in form and color by tiny houses in the foreground of the painting. The house model, in turn, is a sort of homage to Havas’s wife, the architect Peggy Miller, who designed the interior in which the whole scene is set. We seem to catch a glimpse of more rooms around the corner, but the abstracted glimpse itself looks like another Havas painting. The confusions between flatness and depth, window view and painted view, are continual and highly amusing.
In the painting “Sculptor’s Workshop” a series of windows looks into a complicated workshop interior. Havas turns the windows, made more complex by pale reflections, into a series of abstract mini-paintings, here linked with the flat shapes of rusty metal cutouts leaning against the wall below, and contrasted with a deep Skagit Valley landscape framed by an open doorway.
In perhaps the strongest work in the show, the impressive “Piano and Painting,” reflections also play a key role. House plants shimmer vaguely from the polished black surface of a piano, while yet another Lummi Island painting hovers on the wall above. The sheet music on the piano contains curves which are echoed in both the profile of the island and a curved blue magazine sitting on the piano lid. If architecture has sometimes been referred to as frozen music, such a description might apply equally as well to this picture and many of its companions in this intriguing and inventive show.