"Monet had his water lilies, and I have my panties."
The Walker Art Center is launching the largest showing of the idiosyncratic artist Frank Gaard's work to date, consisting of 75 paintings, records, and issues of the artist's cult zine, Artpolice. I recently e-mailed Betsy Carpenter, the curator of the exhibition, to ask her a little bit about Gaard's work.
HuffPost Arts: What are some "taboo topics" that Gaard's artwork features and how does broaching these subjects allow for an understanding of his work and style?
Betsy Carpenter: For Gaard, no subject is off limits. Sex, Religion, Politics it's all there. That these topics are not the makings of polite dinner conversation, or that they are "taboo" are of no concern to him. He is not out to shock or to scandalize. His interests are expressions of intellectualism, wit, and social critique.
The short answer with regard to sex is that Gaard's fetishistic, sometimes ribald imagery stems in part from what he has identified as early-childhood traumas, his struggles with bipolar disorder, as well as his exposure early on, growing up in Chicago in the 1950s and attending art school at the Art Institute of Chicago in the late 60s, to the Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists. No doubt, their strongly figurative painting style and bizarre, even vulgar imagery must have had an effect on his work as a young artist. As for religion, Gaard has spent his life as an autodidact studying philosophy, literature, poetry, and religious texts, especially the Kabbalah. The iconography of Christianity and sacred symbols coming out of Jewish mysticism and the Kabbalah can be found throughout his work. You could say that he makes secular art out of religious structures like the Crucifixion and the Sephiroth.
Finally, politics. Gaard lived in Oakland, California where he was in graduate school at the California College of Arts and Crafts during the Vietnam War. He avoided the draft by staying school, he also became a father at the time. But he has described how affected he was by guys like him going off to war and coming home in body bags, experiencing it as a hyper-politicized time in US history. He arrived in Minneapolis in 1969 to take a professorship at Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and I think his interactions with his students at the time fed his anti-war, anti-establishment fervor. In 1974 he launched the Artpolice, an underground zine that ranged in subject matter from current events to politics to graphic sex, all presented in a licentious comic strip style. Since then, his disdain for the corporatization of America can still be felt in his work, but it is through his writing as a critic and on his blog, where he takes a stand on issues that matter to him.
HuffPost Arts: When was the first time you encountered Gaard's work and what was your initial reaction?
Betsy Carpenter: I saw Gaard's work on one of my first days working at the Walker Art Center in 2001. I was being given a tour of art storage and I remember distinctly seeing from a distance a large painting on one of the rolling painting screens that comic book imagery. Upon closer inspection I realized that it was a meticulously rendered canvas filled with hundreds of caricatured heads, each one slightly different which completely blew my mind. The heads were on one side and another panel on the other side contained what I later found out was the tree of the Sephiroth, a system of signs depicting the emanations of God coming out of Jewish mysticism and the Kabbalah. At the time, I had no idea what to make of it, now I do!
See a slideshow of Gaard's idiosyncratic, kitschy, and positively perverse work below, and let us know what you think in the comments section.
Frank Gaard: Poison & Candy runs from January 26 through May 6, 2012 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
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