Garth Claassen is one of those rare commodities in art today: an artist steeped in art history whose paintings and drawings suggest a very traditional training and yet are strikingly original and contemporary. A native of South Africa and associate professor of art at Albertson College since 1994, Claassen holds a Ph.D. in art history and his show at the Stewart Gallery carries on and advances a noble tradition in western art-propounding the moral repugnance of war.
My only prior exposure to Claassen's two-dimensional art (he's also a ceramist) was a selection of charcoal and conte crayon drawings that intrigued me 10 years ago. In those, the beefy disembodied arms engaged in creative labor at the pottery wheel seemed a blend of Thomas Hart Benton types with Michelangelo's, an American Regionalism meets the Italian Renaissance, if you will. Most of these on view at Stewart are large-scale, full-color figurative works in which Claassen literally struts his stuff in two series of paintings and drawings inspired (provoked?) by Mr. Bush's adventure in Iraq. Claassen is an expert draftsman, clearly in his element with a piece of charcoal or similar medium in hand. The majority of these works are oil stick on canvas or panel, so in essence, these drawings achieve the look of painting. In other words, oil sticks enable him to draw with paint, which is why these pieces have the confidence and vitality they do. Judging by two small acrylic paintings in the show, Claassen isn't quite as effective with paint from the tube.
The two series of works entitled Heavy Dancers and Searchers feature giant figures crowding the picture plane, busying themselves with various vague activities in ambiguous settings. They search the horizon with binoculars in Searchers, and assume wrestling positions and jump or strut about in Dancers. The latter wear shipping cartons or red fire buckets on their heads obscuring their faces and their vision, evoking "chunky, blundering titans ... bent on confronting some as yet invisible enemy," in the words of the artist.
References to the Iraq war are obvious, with smoke-filled skies whose dark, jagged forms suggest a clash of forces, and warplanes, helicopters or parachuting soldiers hovering in the air above a mostly arid landscape. The bulky, hairless male nudes with underplayed private parts in these works again remind me of Michelangelo's painted figures. But Claassen's subjects reveal other precedents as well that are equally important. The art of Goya, of course, comes to mind, not only his Colossus, but his series of etchings Disasters of War, both commentaries on the Napoleonic invasion of Spain. While Claassen's paintings do not have the bitterness of Goya's images, they use the same striking combination of graphic elements like sharp shapes and dramatic light and shadow to enhance the impact. The bald heads and thick necks of Claassen's figures recall Leon Golub's brutish soldiers of fortune carrying out American foreign policy in 1980's Central America. Then there are Otto Dix's disturbing walking wounded from World War I, echoed in Claassen's amputees with stumps fully exposed. Finally, his raw expressionism suggests the influence of British painter Lucien Freud.
These are not comfortable works, nor were they meant to be, which, given the politics and art tastes of Boise, means they probably won't sell. This is unfortunate, as they are remarkably executed despite their audacity. After sketching in the compositions with charcoal, Claassen traces the drawings with Prussian blue acrylics, then uses acrylic washes as undercoats with colors complementary to the desired final result, like green for the figures. Because it dries faster than oil paint, Claassen creates his dense surfaces with oil stick to facilitate the build-up of layers while doing cross-contour modeling of his forms. Using a transparent medium to help manipulate the pigment and occasional brushwork, Claassen achieves lush, painterly surfaces that are striking in their complexity. The earth tones contrasting with vivid red, blues and greens and theatrical lighting effects add a visual excitement to these images.
There are also a number of charcoal drawings of Heavy Dancer subjects. Though the bombs are flying here, too, these have a lighthearted, almost comic feel, with the figures' antics resembling a circus act or a performance by Blue Man Group. But then, it's a circus Claassen depicts for us in these eccentric and skillfully rendered works, one that would be entertaining were it not for its tragic consequences.