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Thursday, October 28, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A Trip To The Surreal -- David Kane's Two Absorbing Shows Reveal The Strange And The Beautiful

Special To The Seattle Times

------------------------------- VISUAL ARTS REVIEW

"Suburban Souls" and "Holidays in Paint" New work by David Kane, at Esther Claypool Gallery, 617 Western Ave., Seattle, through Oct. 30. 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. -------------------------------

Yes, there are flying saucers. And mutant earthlings - obviously the result of amorous trysts with space aliens. David Kane's paintings at Esther Claypool gallery may seem at first like the stuff of B-movies; but don't be fooled. His two new series, "Suburban Souls" and "Holidays in Paint," offer some of the best representations I've seen of contemporary America in all its queasy, unsatisfying affluence.

Kane is painting the twilight zone of the millennium, where park-and-ride is the equivalent of purgatory. His "Suburban Souls," buoyed up on Prozac and basted in toxic vapors, sleepwalk through life in their own fuchsia-hued nightmares. The landscapes look irradiated, sterile and unwholesome, and people drift about in a state of perennial disconnect: from other people, from their surroundings, from themselves. The people in couples seem more alone than those who really are. The compositions can best be described as Edward Hopper meets Giorgio de Chirico in Redmond.

Kane's "Morning," for example, is one of those lonely Hopper bedroom scenes: a naked woman staring out a window. But in this case it's a slightly surreal Hopper, steeped in glowing antifreeze orange that sets your teeth on edge. Kane's "Gala" looks like a replay of Grant Wood's "American Gothic" done in carnival drag: The woman wears a bunny suit, the guy's a devil with a pitchfork. If you stand next to these paintings too long, you'll get the willies. So I advise abandoning this room for the next, where you can set up camp in front of "Holidays in Paint."

When you come to this show, bring lots of quarters to plug your parking meter, or better yet, take the bus. You may want to spend the rest of the day here. "Holidays in Paint" is a brilliant installation, with the paintings - all 57 of them - bunched up on one wall like a collection of travel postcards. You can sprawl on the wooden bench set up for just that purpose, and, with a selection of Martin Denny-esque shopping music cha-cha-cha-ing mildly in the background, gorge your eyes on things beautiful and strange.

This is where the flying saucers hover, peeping over bucolic landscapes like extraterrestrial eco-tourists afraid to get their hands dirty. Ships slither through ungainly seas; an ancient temple is towed across one picture like it's the set of a TV commercial; more Edward Hopper escapees say no to each other with body language; and an enormous, out-of-scale person, like Goya's "Colossus," sinks into the ocean, arms spread like a martyred saint.

Some vacation. But if you sit there for a while, individual images will captivate you. I fell for "Volunteers," a seductive composition like a hand-tinted still from a propaganda film. Men march diagonally across the picture into a vanishing point at the lower right. In opposition to them, a row of rockets swells toward the top of the frame against a sickly pink sky. It's tense and elegant and creepy, too, in a way that makes it hard to stop looking at.

I was similarly hooked on "Castaways," an image that Marsden Hartley could have painted in his dreams. A rowboat full of men on a heavy sea cross in front of the looming hull of a huge ship. Everything is gray but for a blood red stripe across the rowboat and one across the ship. It's another tense, diagonal composition like "Volunteers." But "Castaways" is Hartley's palette, his waving flag, his vulnerable sea-drenched fantasy of masculinity. If these images bring to mind the work of artists from the past, it's because Kane has found a way to renew the traditions of American painting and make them relevant to the sordid facts of life as we approach the 21st century.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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