KAREN HAAS BRINGS US “CLOSE ENCOUNTERS”

by Tom Leddy

I was once a child.  It was a long time ago.  But something in the recent paintings of Karen Haas at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology takes me back.  In the world she portrays life is filled with a child’s comforts and worries.  Questions multiply.  What’s going on with the parents, with that other kid, and perhaps most worrisome of all, with the giant beast-like characters that both fascinate and disturb as they walk through what is supposed to be an innocent playland?  My parents would take me to Disneyland where I was endlessly fascinated with the characters from the movies I loved… Mickey Mouse and Goofy come to mind.  I knew they were teenagers dressed as cartoon figures:  but that hardly mattered…or perhaps was part of the fascination. They walked in the crowds, their heads were larger than life, they would shake hands, but what was going on inside?  In a series of watercolors that Haas did expressly for this show, this theme of childhood and the creatures of the amusement park is prevalent.

Worried Boy

Worried Boy, watercolor on paper, 2010, Courtesy of the Artist

The creatures in Haas’s paintings have been appearing for several years now at “Christmas in the Park,” staged each year in downtown San Jose.  The watercolors are part of a series called “Creatures Among Us.”  One naturally thinks not only of the immediate topic but of our current fascination with computer games and the creatures that inhabit them.  To what extent can we accommodate ourselves to the fantastic creatures that now inhabit our world, in some ways replacing the ones that are rapidly going extinct?  Is Watson, the IBM computer that recently won a game of Jeopardy against two of the best human contestants in the field, a companion of our future, a friend or foe?  One thinks of Hal, the computer in Kubrick’s sci-fi classic 2001, friendly at one point, ominous and dangerous at the next.  Each of these watercolors consists of two or three figures against a white background.  The watercolors are loose and colorful, with some figures lightly outlined in a yellow that gives them a luminous quality.

One thing that immediately strikes the viewer is that the paintings are on walls that are not painted in the traditional white.  In fact, one wall in the gallery space is orange, and another is green.  This would be a challenge for any artist.  In response, Haas chose to use matching colors, dominant greens for paintings in the green-wall room and oranges for paintings in the orange-wall room.  Another contextual factor could not be handled as easily: Transpersonal Psychology is not often associated with parents and children enjoying themselves in a public park during the holiday season.  From looking at the Wikipedia entry I found that transpersonal psychology “studies the transpersonal, self-transcendent or spiritual of the human experience.”  I have heard that this gallery typically displays work with a metaphysical or mystical theme.  However, I found myself thinking about the ways in which inter-personal psychology was explored in these paintings.  Most of the works are about relations between people.  And then, perhaps there is something trans-personal about the creatures anyway.  Does a person dressed as a creature go beyond what it is to be a person?  Some of these creatures are not clearly identifiable as any specific type of animal:  is this one a cow, a goat, or some alien combination?  One painting shows a person in a reindeer costume with a jaunty red scarf, enormous antlers, and a great paw on the shoulder of a woman holding onto what looks like a shopping bag.  Another shows a bear-like figure looming over three kids, all of whom seem perfectly comfortable with this photo-opportunity.  Comfort is not always the theme, however.  One of my favorites, “Worried Boy,” portrays a single child with a somewhat worried look on his face backed by two creatures, one of which looks quite scary, a Santa hat appearing on one, as though one fictional signifier is not enough.  Not all of the watercolors are of creatures, but the pervasive feeling remains.  One shows a boy confronting a tall man with a balloon-figure hat.  Another, represents a mother holding an apple she is eating and a father holding a cup of coffee, both grasping the hand of a child, almost hanging between.  Haas has said that “the children are aware of elements of the world the adults are unaware of.”

Untitled (shadow man)

Shadowman, acrylic on canvas, 2010, Courtesy of the Artist

In addition to the watercolors the show features several larger paintings in acrylic.  “Naughty Girl,” shows a mother pulled in two directions, one by a pouty-faced girl, and another by a boy who moves beyond the edge of the painting.  These figures are situated on a stage-like grid in an abstract space with a group of hooded teenagers in the far-left deep space.  “Shadowman,” with dominating colors of cadmium yellow and cadmium red, was painted specifically for this show.  Instead of being dominated by a creature it features a large shadow of, presumably, the photographer of the image on which the painting is based.  This shadow is not quite ominous, more an indicator of an observing presence.   On the upper left, a girl, filled with her own insouciance, is almost the true focus of the painting.  Once again, we are given a view of the world as if from a child’s eyes.  A third painting, which is actually the first one encountered upon entering the show, called “Pedestals,” pictures three children, one a girl on the left climbing  playground equipment, and two boys of possibly different ethnicities, facing each other across a gridded space each on top of his own pedestal.  What is being expressed is not so much tension as fascination.  They observe each other not knowing what to do next.  A fourth painting, in a somewhat different thematic mode, shows a prone man in space floating above a large number of hands, perhaps of friends who just tossed him jubilantly into the air.  The theme is not unrelated to the rest of the show: the sense that we are surrounded by simulacra and avatars can be coupled with the sense that we are at sea in the world, potentially supported by others as we fall, but perhaps not.  Ironically, the hall this work faces is filled with wall posters about scientific projects concerning the possible benefits of psychedelic drugs.   In the green-wall room there is a series of three paintings based on Cesar Chavez Park themes.  The first on the left, “Lonely Lady,” is one of the few works in the show that portrays an exclusively adult experience, although I find something weird and wonderful about the abstract images that make up the folds of the lady’s shirt and jacket.  She truly is lonely – you know it.  The other two panels mainly depict teenagers, one is of a boy and a girl coming from, or going to, a sports event, and the other is of a group of young people crossing a street.  All three are vertical, having Japanese-like spaces.  Particularly effective is the large space of brownish pavement leading up to the kids crossing the street.

Pedestals, acrylic on canvas, 2010, Courtesy of the Artist

Pedestals, acrylic on canvas, 2010, Courtesy of the Artist

The final element of the show is a series of drawings, mainly of parents and their children, also based on photographs of activities in the same park.  These have a different feel, however.  Gone is the sense of possible danger:  we just have scenes of caring parents cradling their children or carrying them on their shoulders.  The children look one way, the parents another, and yet an intimacy remains.  I like the handling of line in these ink drawings, especially the little black dots at points of hesitation.  One thing I find refreshing overall in this show is that it portrays people we see in the streets of our own cities as they look today:  there really aren’t many contemporary painters who do that.  Oh yes, the name of the show, “Close Encounters?”  There are aliens among us: they are really people in costumes there to amuse children and provide photo opportunities for parents, yet they fascinate with their ambiguities.  The show, which opened in January, will be closing on March 19.  The Institute for Transpersonal Psychology is at 1069 East Meadow Circle Palo Alto, and the gallery is open during the regular school hours, M-F 10-8, Sat 10-6, Sun. 12-4.

Disclosure:  I am Karen Haas’s husband.  I teach in the Philosophy Department at San Jose State specializing in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art.  This is the first of a series of articles I hope to write for Artshift.

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