The much-anticipated 40-year retrospective of local artist/teacher/provocateur/imp Frank Gaard is up and glowing at the Walker Art Center. Said to be the largest collection of Gaard's work ever assembled (though CO Exhibitions had a nice Gaard show last year), Frank Gaard: Poison & Candy features more than 200 works, including large-scale paintings, portraits, drawings, album covers, First Ave. posters, and other bric-a-brac, as well as original drawings from Artpolice , the infamously iconoclastic cult zine Gaard helped publish from 1974-94, while he was a teacher at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD).
No doubt many parents new to the Twin Cities will be appalled to learn that Gaard has had such a direct influence on generations of malleable young minds. Not everyone would choose to paint a devil goddess squatting over a campfire, peeing into the flames. Nor would too many artists find it aesthetically necessary to depict a collection of penises labeled "Matisse," "Pollock," "Picasso," "DeKooning," "Warhol," etc., accompanied by yet another squatting, urinating woman—as Gaard does in what might be called his most uro-centric work, "The Lake of Piss."
But such is Gaard's ouvre, a fantasmagoric, scatological explosion of electric color and comic-book craziness fueled in equal parts by a passion for political anarchy and women's panties. It is no surprise that Gaard's work is also the product of a manic-depressive mind, albeit one that trained itself to harness into a moderately coherent form the rushing flood of manic wonderment his afflicted synapses produce. If you started dropping acid at the age of five and did nothing else but read Marvel Comics, Mad magazine, and Nietschze, Gaard would definitely speak to you. Heck, he might even take you on as a student.
The show opens with a large, colorful piece called "In the Time Being," (above) a masterpiece of cartoonish delirium animated with circus-like characters who have swollen lips, elephantine noses, rubbery tongues, and exist in a jiggly, uncertain world made of psychedelic jello. Formally speaking, it's probably the most impressive piece in the exhibit, but it was painted back in 1971, very early in Gaard's artistic odyssey, before he became the defiant trickster we have come to know and love (or hate, depending on your tolerance for glow-stick colors and gratuitous juvenilia).
The most compelling part of the show is a room filled floor to ceiling on three sides with a hundred or so portraits—of local musicians, writers, artists, and assorted friends of Gaard's—executed with a cartoonist's disregard for anatomically correct body parts. Chances are you will know or recognize at least a few of the people in these portraits. But in looking at them side by side, it's obvious that Gaard isn't really painting these people's exterior features at all; he's attempting to draw something more akin to their true spirit, or at least their inner truth as Gaard sees it, which is a kind way of saying that he doesn't care a whit about creating a pleasing or flattering picture. Consequently, all the portraits have a naïve grotesqueness to them, a unique quality that makes them much more interesting to look at than a painting by someone who is merely trying to reproduce someone's physical likeness on paper.
That same anarchic intelligence is on display in the Artpolice section, where several original drawings and first editions of the infamous 'zine Gaard published with a dozen or so other like-minded artists, back when print publications were the only available option. The great thing about Artpolice was that it drew visually from Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and other satirical artists of the 1960s, and fused that irreverent sensibility with a wildly eclectic but quite serious counter-cultural critique of American culture. At its lowest, Artpolice depicted vulgar, explicit, and sometimes perverted sex acts—blowjobs, sodomy, bestiality, S&M, etc.—and at its highest it offered a kind of nakedly honest "truth" unavailable anywhere else, often in rambling, semi-coherent diatribes crushed between bizarre doodlings and adolescent imagery that would not look out of place on a bathroom wall. Artpolice was free speech in all its messy glory, a place where stupidity and brilliance co-existed on the same page, creating a hilariously subversive form of cognitive dissonance.
The final room of the exhibit features paintings Gaard based on his understanding of Jewish mysticism, particularly the Sephiroth, or "tree of life." There's also a gigantic installation Gaard created just for the Walker; it's a spectacularly slapdash collection of painted records, DVD's, and other odds and ends, including many of his signature ponies and panties. The thing is borderline insane, which is a description that could be applied to much of Gaard's work. But unlike so many other people on the streets mumbling nonsense to their imaginary demons, Gaard has found creative ways to corral his runaway mind—ways that some might call asinine, and others would (and do) call art. All are correct, and that's the great thing about Frank Gaard's work. It doesn't just defy categorization—it defies everything.
Frank Gaard: Poison & Candy continues at the Walker Art Center through May 6, 2012.