Frank Gaard's retrospective opens at the Walker

Categories: Art
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Yesterday, the Walker Art Center opened the largest survey ever of work by the legendary Frank Gaard, featuring 75 pieces created since the artist moved to Minneapolis in the late 1960s. In the exhibition are huge paintings containing penises, sexy ladies, underwear, religious imagery, and rock 'n' roll details. There's also an enormous collection of portraits, new work which includes an entire wall made up of paintings, painted records and discs that Gaard arranged himself for the show, and selections from ArtPolice, the zine Gaard founded which ran from 1974-1994. 

For all of the controversy that Gaard has drummed up over his career (being protested for a painting of a mustache-d Duchamp at the MIA in 1986; getting fired from MCAD a year or so after that), "Frank Gaard: Poison and Candy" is disappointingly inoffensive. This is the artist who in 1986 caused abstract painter Phyllis Wiener to condemn the "anti-Semitism, sexism, and the hatred" in the ArtPolice display at the MIA? This is the artist who Star Tribune critic Mary Abbe crucified in her April 6 article of that year, saying: "In the visual equivalent of punk rock, the Artpolice use vulgar material for scatter-gun attacks on public morality, directing their juvenalia at everything society reveres -- women, children, sex, politicians, religion, artists." 
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Satanic Housekeeping by Frank Gaard
Times have changed, apparently. Today, Gaard's work doesn't seem sexist or anti-Semitic or hateful at all. There's religious imagery, certainly, drawn from Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism. But the images aren't negative. If anything they're embracing certain mythologies from religious traditions in a very personal way. 

The Sephiroth, or tree of life, appears more than once in the exhibit. The symbol from Hebrew Mysticism is "a map of the 10 qualities of G-d," according to Gaard's blog. He writes that his use of the motif was a means to "learn more about a foreign culture and especially as a way to study mysticism." In his Sephiroth paintings, Gaard seems to be mapping out his own psyche and personal relationships through the symbol. They are thus very personal works. 
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Gaard utilizes Christian and Hindi imagery in Dionysus, where two businessmen, who look rather clownish, are hung on crosses. In the background, other businessmen are positioned in such a way as to make them look like Hindu multi-limbed gods. While the easily offended might not like this piece, it's not an attack on these religions, but rather uses the appropriated imagery to work out his personal demons. 

As for sexist, well, that seems a stretch too. Some of the pieces are sexual, but that doesn't make them sexist. There are the penises, and the scantily clad babes showing off their crotches. It's no more sexual than what one gets from turning on the television. 
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The Island of Statues (after WB Yeats Play) by Frank Gaard
Sure, some of the pieces are a bit porny, but they're porny in the same way George Bataille is porny. That is, just because they are explicitly sexual doesn't mean they're not art. Like Bataille, Gaard embraces the down and dirty of bodies, and sex, and longing, not in a way that is beautiful, necessarily, but in a juxtaposition of pleasure and thought. His work contains layers of philosophy, theology, emotion, and vulnerability, and in that vulnerability is where the sexual images come to play. 

Besides the philosophical ideas, the literary references, the punk rock and comic book aesthetic of Gaard's work, his raw emotion, uncarefully hidden behind his style, comes through in every piece. Gaard's personal struggles, his feelings, his relationships (especially with women) are so poignantly captured in this exhibition. 
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The most stunning pieces, in fact, are not the intellectual ones or the sexy ones. The portraits are the best part of the show. They are displayed in a large group together on three walls of one of the gallery rooms. They are magical in their ability to show the essence of the subject, and the chemistry between the artist and each person. They are joyful and stripped of any pretence. 

It turns out that Frank Gaard isn't so controversial after all. Once you get past the shock value, his soul comes through, and it powerful indeed. 

IF YOU GO:

"Frank Gaard: Poison & Candy"
Through May 6
In the Burnet Gallery at the Walker Art Center
Gaard will give a lecture on February 9 at 6:30 p.m. in the gallery


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