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 opportunity to see the continuum of Gaard's artistic personality is one of the main appeals of the Flanders retrospective. When I visit the gallery a week before the opening, curator Lonni Ranallo (who once studied with Gaard at MCAD) has assembled most of the work. Spread around the room are rolled 1970s R. Crumb-style paintings, a couple of canvases on which Gaard has painted the underwear he finds amusing, and several dozen of his portraits on paper. Ranallo says she has chosen work that represents the wide range of the artist's career.

"I want people to see where the portraits come from," she says. "The controversy [over his sexually explicit work] has gotten too much attention. I don't view it as controversial, and Frank doesn't either. He's gotten a bad rap from a lot of women, and he doesn't deserve it. I want people to see the love and beauty in it, and the honesty of what he's putting up front."

That said, at least a bit of controversy seems inevitable for the show: In a masterstroke of irony that has created a big buzz on the local scene, the folks at Flanders are juxtaposing Gaard's works with a concurrent show by überfeminist painter and sculptor Judy Chicago. Though stylistically related--both artists depict abstracted figures in acrylic, and both prefer flat, bright colors--Chicago's images of trees transforming into women, and ecstatic birthings and the like represent the opposite end of the spectrum from Gaard.

"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

For his part, Gaard laughs off the juxtaposition with Chicago, saying he thinks many people read the wrong message into his work. "I think I'm misunderstood. I'm really a humanist, and I love people....If someone doesn't like my art, that's fine."

Suddenly, he pauses for a moment. "It's possible that it's because I'm manic-depressive, too. That I switch between the yin and the yang on a half-hour basis.... But I think we're allowed to be inconsistent."

 

Though Ranallo may be bringing a marketer's mindset to bear when she downplays the more contentious issues in Frank Gaard's work, when given the chance, the artist himself reveals a rich ideology behind his approach. "Remember the big deal made out of Jasper John's maps?" Gaard says. "Art is a map of a person's being--like a map of the past, of desire, of psychologies. It is like a detective story....I like bright colors, and feelings. I like my work to be evocative. When you put it out there, it's all a humongous puzzle. It's fascinating that the human mind is inclined to want to know why. And the questions that philosophers ask are similar to the questions that painters ask....I am interested in mysticism--that life is a mystical experience. There is something very compelling about life even in the most banal times."

Standing in the living room, he shifts through the stacks of paintings, moving some out of the pile, reshuffling, looking at some and discarding others. He pauses at one painting of perhaps four feet by six feet that he calls "Time Painting." It is a horizontally arranged grid of heads of various sizes; underwear with names of authors on them (Keats and Emily Dickinson, for example); names of the artist's favorite bands (White Zombie, Joy Division, Sonic Youth); and a cat puppet. All of this is painted in vividly colored acrylic paint. The background of the image is a puzzle-like arrangement of flat color squares: orange, blue, bright yellow. And though the grid makes the image a bit static, the various sizes of heads and objects give the painting an almost epic sweep.

"I wanted to get away from the idea of painting the whole gestalt symphonic piece," says Gaard. "I just wanted to come to terms with the contradictions in myself. I'm balancing humor and seriousness here." He points at a mass of smaller cartoon heads that line up at the top of the image. "Repetition is the key. It's like seeing bin Laden everywhere. Every time he's on TV, he wins."

Gaard particularly seems to enjoy the cat-puppet figure that is prominent in the lower-left quadrant of the painting. Gaard says he owns a cat puppet that he takes out when young kids come to visit. He walks across the living room, puts the cat puppet on his hand, and starts speaking in a falsetto voice. He gestures vigorously as he stands in front of his painting, pretending he is another figure who no doubt has also felt persecuted of late. "Hi! My name is bin Laden!....I didn't do it! I didn't do it! I didn't do it!"

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