For the most part, the Seattle art scene got quickly back to normal after the recent quake. The First Thursday Art Walk went ahead as usual, just a day after the earth shook. Now local galleries are filled with this month’s new art. KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, recently walked past the flagged buildings in Pioneer Square to visit the Grover-Thurston Gallery, where a highly-regarded local painter, Karen Ganz, is having her eighth Seattle show. He found an intriguing tie-in between her works and recent events. Here are his thoughts.
For many people, the artist’s life seems a picture of freedom. It is easy to image that the rules that run the work day at the office, warehouse, or factory are gloriously absent in the artist’s studio, where creativity and spontaneity reign.
The reality is that most artists also find it preferable to work in a world of strict limits. After a period of trial and error, painters generally reduce their field of inquiry to a particular style, a particular subject, and a particular realm. Within their territory some artists leave themselves a great deal of wiggle room; others prefer to keep very narrowly focused. Creativity emerges from the struggle to encompass a world of meaning within a miniature range.
In the case of painter Karen Ganz, a single book of cartoon characters she acquired years ago has long defined her artistic terrain. She paints the misadventures of a monumentally scaled comic strip everyman, a sort of befuddled, 1930s Dagwood Bumstead. While Ganz’s Dagwood is painted in the flat, linear style of an enormous cartoon, his background and surroundings are strictly abstract expressionist. The abstract paint creates a storm of tension and conflict to which the cartoon hero responds, sort of, by flailing around and looking stressed.
In the current exhibit the whirling forces in Ganz’s painted adventures have literally pulled the canvas apart, and nearly every work in the show is composed of off-kilter multiple panels precariously cobbled together and balanced on the wall, like a, say, tipped house after a trembler. In the midst of this tilted landscape poor Dagwood seems trapped like a rat in the rubble.
And talk about limits. In four of the pictures Ganz paints the same figure again and again, exploring the possibilities, trying to get it right. She works from exactly the same cartoon source, depicting a Mutt and Jeff character in checked pants bent over and struggling. From panel to panel the figure seems to get a bit more twisted, a bit more the rag doll and less the man.
What sets Ganz’s work apart is the exuberant things she does with paint. The figures in these paintings are attacked by broad strokes of pure color applied with a quick flourish, poking them in the heads, hands, and knees. The overall painted surface is as complicated as a Talmudic text, featuring areas that have been scrapped, sanded dripped, pasted with gritty crumbs, or polished to a glossy sheen. The drawings of the comic men are applied over the top, at times painted over, then repainted. Previous poses are often visible through the murk.
The narrative content is less clear. What is this guy doing? In one picture he grasps a wad of dollar bills, in another he looks behind him like a deer caught in headlights. He seems unlikely to ever stand straight, or get his act together.
If these paintings have a weakness, it is an occasional sense of the pastiche — pictures where the figure seems pasted on rather than growing out of the background paint.
Most successful is the giant, hilarious Backbone. Easily the most energetic painting in the show, this picture features another sad sap being literally given the boot. With a swift head kick the life-sized figure is beginning to buckle at the knees. Right at the small of his back the painting splits into two panes, and the east half of his body tilts one way, the west half the other. Fortunately, we have the luxury of smiling, since Mother Nature - in the form of the Nisqually Quake - seems to have given us Northwest saps more of a wrist slap than a kick in the pants — this time. Don’t laugh too hard Seattle, Ganz seems to be saying — you could be next.