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."

Another local painter, Melissa Stang, didn't get along with Gaard in the early 1980s when she was one of his students, feeling that she was excluded from a kind of "boys' club." Yet she says that eventually she would find him to be a tremendous influence. "He would set up these wildly colorful backdrops for human figures we would paint," says Stang, "so we got into doing it with a lot of color. It made us think about the entire picture. And a lot of the time he'd read to us while we painted. Philosophy, mostly. I remember he was really into Nietzsche."

In the meantime, Artpolice earned Gaard notice and some detractors, too. Though a handful of local women artists contributed to Artpolice in its heyday--Ruthann Godollei and Stang are two who continue to live and work in town--many others were offended by the occasional preoccupations of the underground comics aesthetic. They objected most strenuously to some raw depictions of sex, sex organs, bodily functions, and all things related to bodily functions--though it must be said these images made up a small part of the 30 to 40 pages in a typical edition of the zine.

In the collection of fragile egos that is the local art scene, it was only a matter of time before Gaard's tell-it-like-it-is persona brought him up against more serious trouble. The showdown occurred back in 1986 with the run of an exhibition celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Minnesota Artists' Exhibition Program (MAEP) at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA). Included among the nearly 200 works of art by 85 artists were some images from Artpolice. On one of the pages, Gaard had painted a tiny moustache on a picture of surrealist prankster Marcel Duchamp, one of his artistic heroes. It was meant as a kind of tribute to an image Duchamp had made by painting a moustache on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa.

"That's the essence of Frank," says Stuart Turnquist, the longtime director of the MAEP. "He had to do Duchamp one better, even several decades later...Unfortunately, someone came through [the gallery] and thought it was Hitler."

A story that ran in the Star Tribune, dated April 6, 1986 and written by Mary Abbe Martin, called these Artpolice drawings "juvenalia [directed] at everything society reveres--women, children, sex, politicians, religion, artists." Artpolice had been distributed and shown locally for more than 12 years without causing an outcry of this sort. In fact, the zine was attracting a growing fan base here, in New York, and especially in Europe. The article described the controversy and resulting protests, but, tellingly, it did not bother to describe any of the images in the show.

"The Anti-Defamation League decided to take a confrontational stance, not a conversational stance," Turnquist says. Other people, such as the Women's Art Registry of Minnesota, who'd previously been agitated by Gaard, took this opportunity to mount protests.

"They were meant to tarnish my reputation," says Gaard of the charges.

"Eventually there were a number of people in the Jewish community who saw the art and said it was not anti-Semitic," Turnquist says, "and so it became less of an issue. But for a time there were pickets in front [of the museum]. Some of the art in the galleries was marked, some vandalism....Because of this criticism, Frank was deeply hurt. I don't know how he resolved it finally, but it really hurt him." Turnquist adds that at the time, Gaard was married to a Jewish woman, was taking classes to convert to Judaism, and had two sons being raised Jewish. (Gaard has been married and divorced twice.) "It cut him deeply to be called anti-Semitic," Turnquist says.

A year or so later, Gaard was fired from the staff at MCAD, which has no tenure system to protect faculty. There were numerous reasons for the firing--by his own account, Gaard hardly went out of his way to get along--but the controversy made it easier for the college to rid itself of an artist who'd been something of a gadfly for 17 years. As might be expected with an incident that occurred 15 years ago, fellow faculty members vary in their assessment of what occurred. One retired peer mentioned Gaard's volatile behavior as a key factor. When contacted by phone and e-mail, the college itself declined to address the issue, though the dean of the college at that time, Aribert Munzner, says that the decision not to renew was not out of the ordinary and was made by a faculty-wide review committee. Munzner did go on to say Gaard was an "artist of amazing insight and fantastic power," though he would not comment on the quality of Gaard's teaching. (Legend has it that after his departure, Gaard continued to give lectures in his attic apartment, and that recordings of the talks were traded among his former students.)

"It was an ongoing thing," says Gaard in a distant voice. "It all boiled down to the fact that I had differences with faculty there, particularly the idea that they were not professional artists, and not exhibiting regularly--even though it was a criteria for employment....When evaluation time came up, I was in a weakened position.

"Just prior to [the firing], I also had marriage problems," Gaard continues, "and I ended up in a psychiatric hospital. Things were not so good....I don't know. Maybe I reached some sort of Waterloo at the time. It seems like ancient history now, but it was ruinous. But I was a survivor. I wasn't somebody who lay down and died. I am alive and still doing my work....I've read a lot of Baudelaire. I always liked that despite all the horrors he experienced, he kept writing. I think that's the bellwether as to whether or not your work will survive to posterity."

 

The events of 1986 helped fuel Frank Gaard's art, as he sought a way to vent feelings of rage and disappointment. "After the protests, I went more in the direction of erotic art," says Gaard. "My investigations grew more intense after that time."

In 1991 Gaard founded a new publication along with artist Stu Mead called Manbag, which would take Artpolice's most explicit imagery to new extremes. Manbag featured sex acts on nearly every page, and some imagery stretched the limits of good taste--little girls getting off with big bad wolves, for instance.

"I think Manbag is extremely challenging," says local painter Dick Brewer. "But I like that sort of stuff going on....I'm not always drawn to certain imagery, but I think [free speech] is a basic right we have to hold onto."

Given Gaard's core determination to stir up the art audience, it seems inevitable that his troubles did not end with his firing. He has not held a regular job since leaving MCAD, and he recently was forced to move. Gaard fumes that his landlord evicted him and sold the duplex after having amassed a full collection of his work. The landlord, Leo Kuelbs Jr. (who himself puts out a zine), describes the building's sale as a business decision--it was a good time to pull out of the market--and says he harbors no ill will. He adds that he has even visited the artist's new studio digs. Gaard is resentful, nonetheless. "What a schmuck," he says. "He got his collection. His new place has a room of my stuff. It looks like a baseball-card collection."

It is precisely this characteristic of Gaard's--the inclination to fulminate against the slights of the world--that many people respect about him. "I have the utmost respect for Frank," said Dick Brewer. "He's been a great presence in town. Frank polarizes people. He's a wonderful burr under the saddle of general consciousness."

Though Gaard's spirits seem low at present, his art has lightened in recent years. "Maybe my vision is kind of comic," he says. "I mean this not in a bad sense, but in an operatic sense. My work is like the operas of caricature-- like Carmen, not like Wagner. I like the idea of life being laughable. I mean, panties are funny, kind of in the same way fire hydrants are funny for dogs. They're not funny in our society, but in France they're funny. My dad was born in Europe. Maybe that's part of it. There's the sense in America that we can't enjoy a good shit."

In the 1990s Gaard gave up publishing his underground zines once and for all--ending the run of Artpolice in 1994, and of Manbag, in 1996. His current creations are mostly portraits--a way, he says, to connect with people. He has depicted many of the mainstays of the local arts scene: writer Emily Carter, for instance, No Name Exhibitions director Christi Atkinson, and artist Doug Padilla. Gaard's apartment contains dozens and dozens of portraits, all done in bright acrylic paint on pieces of heavy Arches archival paper.

As you might expect, Gaard is defiant in his painting: He does it as he sees fit, idiosyncratically manipulating the image of his sitters. He paints with garish colors in a flattened, cartoony style, sometimes adding collage elements that seem to have personal import to the sitter or the artist. Other faces feature strikingly expressive colors or altered features that reveal the artist's emotional state. Still others bear crude words and phrases whose meaning is rather vague.

One recent portrait that he pulls from the stack, of restaurateur Zander Dixon, focuses eerily on a chihuahua that the subject wanted included in the picture. In the painting, Dixon holds the big-eyed, oversize chihuahua at his waist, smack dab in the center of the painting. Oddly, the sitter's head is clipped off at the very top, seemingly because of the focus on the dog. It is as though the artist ran out of room, or thought it unimportant, to include Dixon in his entirety. Says Gaard with a shrug, "I spent most of my time on the dog because that was the deal."

Melissa Stang, who has been painted by Gaard three times, says sitting for the artist is a "fabulous experience. As a painter, sitting, I learn from just watching how Frank does things. He's unconventional--in his color choices, in the way he makes the picture. You can't believe the things he is doing. He puts a blue line down to make your nose, and you see the shadows in your face just from this weird green....When people sit for portraits now, they sort of represent a chance for Frank to teach. He talks about various subjects. We talked about the art world, people we used to know. We talked very candidly about who's a poser-loser and stuff like that. Frank is still very blunt."

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.

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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