The waterfront is at the heart of Hamburg--Port of Call, and the only thing I knew going in was that Haskett saw in the Hamburg docks what one can still see in our own waterfront: constant reminders of the dangerous and beguiling oceans beyond the harbor. I myself have never been more than seven miles offshore, and that was in the placid Caribbean, so I came to Haskett's studio equipped with my own swarthy critics: Pavel, Igor, and Victor, three Russian crab fishermen on shore leave whom I had met while researching an earlier story on the Russian fishing industry. They were to be my bullshit checkers, if you will: They had dedicated their professional lives to crabbing, drinking, and whoring, and if Patrick Haskett's art had lost touch with their experience of the open ocean, then the project as a whole would have a real legitimacy crisis.
But Haskett hadn't lost touch. The hardscrabble Russians positively melted in the studio, subdued by a quick empathy with the emotion of the paintings, even recognizing some of the depicted ships by name. They quickly forgot about me, their translator, and somehow fell into direct communication with Haskett, gesticulating a conversation about boats and storms that I will probably never see. As of this week, those sailors are a thousand miles north of Lake Union, in the belly of their trawler, ripping thousands of live king crabs limb from limb, and probably thinking warm thoughts about Haskett's paintings. I can think of no better proof that Haskett is not merely an artist, but also a legitimate member of the international cabal of seafaring men.
Appealing to the sailor demographic is one thing, but there has also been heavy investment in the project from more demanding quarters. The chief sponsors, SAS Airlines, will be joined by high-ranking German government officials and many other well-dressed parties at Benaroya Hall for this Friday's joint reception/concert, the only complete showing of the project in North America. For this clientele, the project clearly needs to provide food for thought along with its seaworthy gristle. That's a harder assignment for Haskett the painter, because his art needs to treat maritime themes without earning the label of "maritime art." Haskett chafes at the label, and with good reason: "Maritime art" is a byword in critical circles for a genre of paintings that have the emotional intelligence of Hallmark greeting cards. Their chief subject, the perfectly rendered schooner churning against a perfectly enraged sea, is repugnant chiefly because it is so emotionally vapid. In a world where modern art has become more and more socially outspoken and intellectually rigorous, the cookie-cutter maritime painting is a sentimental haven for people who want their jangled nerves to be massaged, not pummeled, by art.
Thankfully, the 11 paintings in Hamburg--Port of Call defy the pejorative "maritime art" label both stylistically and thematically. Although Haskett has clearly demonstrated his ability to produce completely photographic realism, his preference has always been to stray toward the more clouded waters of impressionism. The result is a strong balance: At times he extends enough detail to demonstrate the tangled marvel of the cranes, masts, and ropes on the waterfront; but more often than not, he pulls back and lets the viewer interpret broader brush strokes for themselves. Therefore, the water of the Elbe river sparkles in photographic detail in How Deep Are You, while To Walk at Night shows a river lined by abstract light sources that, according to Haskett, "could be street lights or the flames of hell."
The paintings truly show their power thematically, however. As someone who spent a lifetime on or near the water, Haskett obviously feels a kinship with the paintings' great boats (all of which were built at the world-famous Blohm and Voss shipyard in Hamburg). In the best pieces of the collection, those ships serve as a stand-in for Haskett and a reminder of the painter's own authorial power, towering over all other elements in the frame and exercising absolute dominion, not only over the small human figures in the shadows but also over the chameleon waters of the Elbe. The paintings thereby exude an emotional potency that is a rare commodity in their genre.
Hans Fahling, as a jazz player, has a slightly different concern: the need to establish his relevancy not just to Haskett's paintings, but also to the industrial subject matter at hand. There is little chance, for example, that the Russian sailors would be great admirers of his work, no matter how bright the moment (Pavel, for example, is a diehard Anthrax fan). Indeed, if this project had been left in the more refined hands of some other jazz players in town, the result would have been an imbalance of power between muscular art and slack-spined music. Anyone who has seen Fahling play, however, can imagine how he avoided that problem. He brings a no-nonsense and eminently Germanic physicality to all his musical endeavors. Likewise, even though he wrote each of the 11 songs while staring at a corresponding painting, his work has none of the soulless veneer that high-concept art usually has. The album, which was recorded in Berlin with competent American and German sidemen and is released here on OriginArts Records, employs enough unison guitar-sax melodies and clear, strong solos to produce jazz that is complex without being weak or evasive. Therein lies Fahling's crucial common ground with Haskett: Both men have successfully milked their media to find textured, yet unerringly masculine, renditions of life on the docks.
Reservations to the Benaroya event are limited, call 281-4800 for tickets. Copies of the Hamburg--Port of Call CD can be found online at www.originarts.com and in local record stores.