En Gaard

Cartoonist and portraitist Frank Gaard has faced off against the anti-defamation league, art-school administration, and his landlord and remains a defiantly good artist

The comic strip is from another era-- that's clear from the first glance. Part of it is the exaggerated and absurdist storyline, involving art as a tool of the police state. "Attention!" announces an Art Policeman to a large crowd in the first panel, "Welcome to the future of art education boys and girls." In the next panel, a baton, labeled "aesthetic trooth" and wielded from the heavens, smashes down and crushes the policeman's skull. His eyes pop out of their sockets and roll across the panel, leading to comic pandemonium through the rest of the strip.

If this imagery weren't enough to tip the reader off to the cartoon's era, the quirky drawing style probably would. The policeman, with his large nose and rubbery lips, is reminiscent of the Blue Meanies drawn by Heinz Edelmann for the Beatles' Yellow Submarine. It's also informed by the underground comic aesthetic of R. Crumb and his ilk at Zap Comics, circa 1971. Yet what might date this work most definitely is the cheerful anarchism of it all, which is of a piece with many of the other creations by local artist Frank Gaard in the halcyon years of the mid-1970s.

"People don't look at history till it kicks them in the ass": Frank Gaard
"People don't look at history till it kicks them in the ass": Frank Gaard

Titled "Art Police Comics," the black-and-white line images were reproduced lithographically on thick, tabloid-size paper. (The archived editions in the Walker Art Center library smell of telltale litho ink.) The strip was created in 1974 by Gaard, then a 30-year-old instructor at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD), for the first volume of his underground zine Artpolice, which he would edit and publish for the next 20 years.

Taken in whole, the tone of Artpolice is mischievously and joyously immature and frenetic. The illustrations resemble the scribblings on a choice stall of the men's room, though with a lot more polish. The zine, in all its confusion and messiness, addresses head-on and without subtlety the absurdities of its times: Watergate and wiretapping, napalm and lithium, Bedtime for Bonzo and Marcel Duchamp. Gaard's art, by nature, swings dramatically in mood and content, recalling the work of Toulouse-Lautrec, whose preoccupation with cancan girls and the Paris underground often overshadowed the fact that he was a hugely innovative artist.

Today Gaard is 56, and he seems indelibly changed by time and experience. A week or so before the opening of a "mini-retrospective" of his paintings at Flanders Contemporary Art--the name of the show is "Superbright"--Gaard greets me in his basement apartment studio in south Minneapolis. People who know Gaard have told me that meeting the artist can be an unpredictable experience. He has been treated for bipolar disorder, and he seems particularly hard-struck by the swirling terrorist crisis. Contacted by phone a few days before our meeting, Gaard rather insistently refuses to be photographed, stating, "I don't think anyone should be seen these days." (A few days later, Gaard agrees to send a dated photo taken by a friend.) When he answers the door, though, he is quite warm, and as we settle at his kitchen table, he serves me a cup of tea.

Gaard has a haggard look about him these days. His face is lined and sags heavily into his thick shoulders; his skin is pale and his wispy gray and white hair flies from his head in unkempt bunches. His eyes and his occasional smile still exude charisma, but the overall air about the artist is what doctors from another age might have called melancholia. The effect could also be that of stress stretched over a long, bleak period. Gaard had to leave his Northeast apartment this past summer after his landlord sold the building. (The artist had been providing paintings in lieu of paying full rent.) His new apartment contains colorful acrylic canvases leaning against walls and furniture, stacked on tables and counters. These may not be the best of times, but Gaard continues to work at an impressive clip; he is nothing if not a persistent man.

A phone call interrupts our tea, and Gaard gets up to answer it, standing silent for a long while as a person speaks to him from the other end. Then he barks a few words into the receiver and hangs up. Someone he knows "is trying to get sober," Gaard explains, "but all his friends are loaded."

Gaard talks about an article he read recently in the New York Times about old Afghan men "going to the pipe" in the country's opium dens. "It's crazy stuff," he says. "People don't look at history till it kicks them in the ass."

 

Frank Gaard's own history on the local scene has been as colorful as his vibrant canvases. He arrived in Minnesota from California in 1969, a young art-school grad eager to make a professional mark as an instructor at MCAD. His attitudes and methodology there quickly earned him a reputation.

"Some people thought his tactics [in the classroom] were intimidating," says a local painter who didn't want her name used for this story (though she describes Gaard as one of Minnesota's finest artists). "He was very frank: He advised people to stop going to art school, insulting their worth--things like that. He dug into everybody equally....He was such a performer. He was just this really high-powered manic-depressive, and he became sort of a father figure to a really brilliant collection of misfits."

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