Word play: Artist Ken Gagne uses proverbs as inspiration for portraits

  • “A beat is a moment in the life a groove,” oil pastel inspired by music in general and Wynton Marsalis and Cécile McLorin Salvant in particular. Image courtesy of Ken Gagne

  • “The curve is more dangerous than the sword,” oil pastel inspired by a quote from early film siren Mae West. Image courtesy of Ken Gagne

  • The painting on right is titled “Never trouble trouble until trouble troubles you.” Image courtesy of Ken Gagne

  • Easthampton artist Ken Gagne, seen here in his studio with Chance, his “art coach” terrier, along with some of his oil pastels. His work is now on exhibit at the A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Easthampton artist Ken Gagne, seen here in his studio with Chance, his "art coach" terrier, along with some of his oil pastels. His work is now on exhibit at the A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • At left is Gagne's oil pastel “Happiness is seeing your mother smile." Partly visible at right is "Ignorance is the enemy and it fills your head with lies."  GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Easthampton artist Ken Gagne says he’s long appreciated humor in art; he wanted to create something similar for the oil pastels he’s now exhibiting at the A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Ken Gagne works on a new oil pastel, “Mother Nature’s destruction,” for an exhibit later this year.

  • At right is Gagne's “Never trouble trouble until trouble troubles you." His carnivalesque oil pastels are all based on proverbs, lines from songs and other sayings. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A detail from "Ignorance is the enemy and it fills your head with lies," an oil pastel by Ken Gagne that was inspired by the current U.S. president. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Ken Gagne works on a new oil pastel, "Mother Nature's destruction," in his Easthampton studio —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

Staff Writer
Saturday, February 17, 2018

As Ken Gagne sees it, we live in curious times — when a former reality TV personality can sit in the White House, for instance. Gagne’s response? Seek solace in the basic messages of proverbs — and in humor.

The Easthampton artist has found a way to combine both those ideas in his newest work, in which he has used proverbs and other sayings as a springboard for a series of oil pastels that offer a decidedly strange view — or maybe just a surreal one — of life.

In “Proverbs N Portraits,” which has just opened at Northampton’s A.P.E. Gallery, Gagne riffs on Donald Trump, the anxiety of new parenthood, music, and other ideas, and he does so with bright, saturated colors, burlesque images and a pretty large scale: Of the 14 canvases he has made for the show, five are 40 by 50 inches.

“I’ve always liked proverbs, the way they can reveal some simple but important bits of wisdom,” said Gagne. “And I really like the idea of building each portrait from a proverb or an expression. They all began with the words … the words are really inseparable from the art.”

But as someone who has long enjoyed humor in art, Gagne didn’t want to create heavy-handed, portentous portraits even if a proverb might be considered serious. In “Never trouble trouble until trouble troubles you,” for instance, a Mr. Potato Head-like figure gapes with disbelief as his nose disappears and is replaced by the entire lower torso of someone else: butt, legs in pinstriped trousers and pointy black shoes.

And in “Happiness is seeing your mother smile,” a comically proportioned mom, with a huge head and stick-like, gangly legs, cradles her new-born baby seemingly with joy — but her face is tattooed with smaller images reflecting her many worries, from germs to her child’s future career to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

“I wanted to do something that reflected pop culture, all the bright colors and things like tattoos, but that also got to the anxiety we seem to live with today,” said Gagne. “But I wanted to do that in a humorous way, too. I like art that makes me laugh.”

Lisa Thompson, the A.P.E. director, said Gagne’s work seems “to catch a certain sensibility about the time we are in, with a bit of irony and humor, and truth. We are looking forward to it.”

Finding his medium

Gagne, who originally studied art at Southern Connecticut State University, later taught elementary school art and then got an MFA in printmaking at the Pratt Art Institute in New York City. He worked as a printer and educator in New York, then moved to the Valley and spent many years in administration and management at Community Enterprises, the Northampton-based human service agency that helps people with disabilities, primarily in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

During that time, he also taught art courses at several local colleges and, when time allowed, did some of his own art and staged a few local shows. But it wasn’t until he retired from Community Enterprises in 2015, he says, that he was able to devote some real energy to his work.

Gagne says he has experimented with different mediums over the years, including painting and printmaking, but he has focused much of his attention on pencil and charcoal drawing. More recently, he began working with oil pastels because they allow for some of the detail of drawing but also provide rich color.

“You can draw with them right onto your surface, and you can also spread them with a paintbrush mixed with thinner, so it gives you some flexibility,” Gagne said. He notes oil pastels have a much thicker consistency than the more powdery conventional pastels.

That kind of texture serves his images well, as he uses layered and vibrant colors to enhance the surreal elements of his portraits. One is based on a quote attributed to Wynton Marsalis, the great trumpet player: “A beat is a moment in the life a groove.” In Gagne’s piece, an image based on jazz singer Cécile McLorin Salvant dominates the center of the portrait, but her mouth is replaced by a piano keyboard, and several smaller figures — a couple dancing a tango, a bass player, a saxophonist — are woven around the edges.

On a more sober note, Gagne has created a portrait of Donald Trump in which the president, wearing a suit of fluorescent blue (and a tag reading “Made in China”), is twisted into a pretzel with one foot in his mouth; his Picasso-like face is split into a kaleidoscope of colors. The picture’s caption reads, in part, “Ignorance is the enemy and it fills your head with lies,” a line taken from a song by American country singer Rodney Crowell.

Trump is depicted against a backdrop that includes an outline of the continental United States, which Gagne uses to set up numerous smaller images reflecting some of the controversies of Trump’s presidency. There’s an oil drilling platform next to the Eastern seaboard, a reference to the administration’s proposal to expand off-shore oil exploration. At what would be New York City, the Statue of Liberty holds up a stop sign and says “Are you a Muslim?” 

Gagne says his work is partly inspired by one of his teachers from the Pratt Institute, the late George McNeill, an abstract-expressionist painter (one of McNeill’s works, along with paintings and prints by several other artists, decorate the walls of Gagne’s studio).

But for his show, he also has drawn on many other sources, such as his interest in music as well as ideas from friends. One, a belly dancer, posed for him and serves as the focal point for a comical portrait based on a quote from Mae West, itself a variation on a well-known proverb: “The curve is more dangerous than the sword.”

“I hope people enjoy what I’ve done, because I had a lot of fun doing it,” he said. “And I’m absolutely thrilled that the A.P.E. Gallery is exhibiting it. I really like that they’re willing to show so many different things, to take a chance on something unconventional.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Ken Gagne’s “Proverbs N Portraits” will be on view at the A.P.E. Gallery, 126 Main St. in Northampton, through March 2. An artist’s reception takes place Friday from 6-8 p.m.