James Martin
Foster/White Gallery, 126 Central Way, Kirkland, 425-822-2305.

Through November 10.

The current show of James Martin's new paintings is absolutely crammed.

I mean, the walls are cram-packed, with paintings spaced less than an inch apart in a single, continuous row that snakes through two rooms. There are 90 or so paintings, with more in storage, and from this abundance (and the style of displaying it) you get a firm feeling about how Martin works: quickly, prolifically, deftly, and--this is trickier--with something probably approximating joy or delight.

Now, "joy" and "delight" are words I've never had much use for. Not because I don't feel them--although when I do, I prefer words for them that have retained some meaning and intensity--but because in the art world they tend to serve as an evasion, a way of not observing how art is a mode of thinking and a form of philosophy. The process of art-making can be, I guess, joyful and delightful, but frankly, the artist's happiness has nothing to do with it.

As it does not with Martin's work, which has humor and color and variety, but is also frenetic, anxious, and somehow unsafe. His paintings feature a host of characters and items, a parade of symbols unto themselves: the decidedly unfierce lion (a stand-in, I'm told, for Martin himself, who often appears as a character in his own paintings--at times as himself, and at least once in a bunny suit), Andy Warhol, Julia Child, a chariot drawn by a fish, empty military uniforms, monkeys in spotted underwear, Dale Chihuly, Shakespeare, Krispy Kreme. The more you look at the work, the more familiar it grows--quite quickly, in fact--into something you feel you can read, that Martin teaches you how to read: in essence, a personal iconography. This is much the same thing that Frida Kahlo's works accomplish, and is why we imagine we know her so much better than we do.

Kahlo's symbols are dark indeed, which is one of the reasons we take her so seriously. Martin's work, which has received comparatively little attention over his long career, is often consigned to the camp of the "whimsical," which is one way of dismissing it. Yet it is not particularly whimsical; the presence of Bugs Bunny and other funny postmodernisms does not render it so. The paintings remind me of illustrations for children's books: not childlike at all, but as done by smart illustrators for smart children who are already aware of life's chaotic darkness. They are slyly smart, redefining sophistication in the same surprising way that some outsider artists do, by keeping themselves outside of current definitions.

It is not that interesting to try to locate Martin in the history of painting; the artist seems prepared to thwart your pointy-headed theories. In her catalogue for Martin's 2001 retrospective at the Museum of Northwest Art in LaConner, Sheila Farr (the Seattle Times' art critic) noted that his work can be packed with characters, like an early Mark Tobey (whom Martin admired), or spare and atmospheric, more in the style of Morris Graves. Tobey and Graves, of course, occupied a particular set of poles in this region in the 1950s.

But anyone with a modicum of art history background will find other influences in his work as well: Martin's characters have a Chagall-like disinclination for gravity, a penchant for absurd juxtaposition that is surrealist to the core, and Picasso's sinuous and unpredictable line that sometimes abruptly turns back on itself (not to mention all the circus imagery out of the Blue Period). Martin seems to enjoy this referential game: Some of his scenes take place in van Gogh's bedroom at Arles, while others show picnics on the grass, or actual paintings being toted by monkeys from somewhere to somewhere else.

One dear, funny, sad painting is called Whistler's Monkey: a poor little monkey alone in a deeply green room, wearing those spotted shorts, with a handful of carrots (another Martinian trope) instead of the bananas he'd probably prefer. It may be a painting about the anxiety of influence--the enormous pressure exerted by the past, its possible inappropriateness for the present--or it may simply be about the abundance of strangeness in the world. A self-portrait in a bunny suit can be whimsical; here it's strange indeed.