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Frank Gaard on Dionysus and Dualism

By Paul Schmelzer

It’s taken 32 years, but the exhibition Frank Gaard: Poison & Candy marks a homecoming of sorts for the Minneapolis-based artist. While Gaard has a long relationship with the Walker—he was commissioned to create a billboard on Hennepin Avenue in 2004, and his work has been featured in exhibitions, including the current show, Midnight PartyPoison & Candy is the painter’s first solo show here since 1980. That year, Viewpoints—Frank Gaard Paintings featured 10 recent works, plus a selection of related drawings. The new survey spans some four decades and features more than 100 works, including paintings, zines, drawings, and notebooks.

When Viewpoints opened, there was little fanfare, Gaard recalls, but he says it did get reviewed by New Art Examiner and the Twin Cities Reader, among others. In its review, by writer Rick Hammer, the now-defunct Reader hailed Gaard’s “revolutionary new definition of expressionism” and noted the acerbic critiques contained in his canvases. Gaard’s aesthetic, Hammer wrote, is “an almost religious devotion to social criticism through art. There is no dogma in this aesthetic, only an abiding discontent with things as they are.”

Several of the large-scale paintings from Viewpoints—including Our Lady of the Art Police (1980) and Dionysus (1979–1980)—will be on view in Poison & Candy.

“I was still a bit under the influence of Peter Saul, Philip Guston, and R. Crumb,” Gaard recalls of the art he was making at the time. “This sort of old-time religion: ‘Abstract art get out of my way; I’ve got a message to send!’ It took a long time to get out from under Peter’s shade.”

The large-scale Dionysus, measuring 5.5 feet by 7 feet, feels like a direct product of the 1980s—with its underground comics feel, bold colors, and Dick Tracy-like figures—while also having a contemporary resonance: In the age of Occupy Wall Street, when anger over bank bailouts and money in politics is abundant, the image of businessmen crucified side-by-side in suits and ties seems apropos. But he says the personal, not the polemical, guided the work.

“I was dealing with the bipolar disorder, and the lithium locked in at that time,” he remembers, referencing a psychiatric diagnosis and treatment that he received in the wake of several breakdowns in the 1970s and 80s. “It brought me back to the coherent working side where I could make things and think. The lithium made me sane enough, organized my synaptic stuff, so I could work.”

The dual images reflect that bipolarity as well as a dualism he was exploring elsewhere, a love of both order and chaos, hard logic and softer belief, “Minimalism and some other thing that’s more human.” The figures, he explains, represent both sides of a philosophical dichotomy, based on the Greek gods Dionysus and Apollo.

“Dionysus for me is like wine and theater and the releasing of the spirit,” Gaard, now 67, said recently. “Apollo, the guy in the striped suit, is the hard-assed architectonic one. He’s about the building of empire. Dionysus invented wine. Which is why he’s still worshipped in Thebes. Then he invents drama, which has entertained us forever.”

“What I was discovering with the mysticism was that it was all running into the same river: the Hindi, the wisdom of the near east. But with [philosopher Ludwig] Wittgenstein it’s an equation, like a click on a computer. I think the two things together brought me into a balance. I could accept the edgy kind of logic, and language, and at the same time have this interest in religious issues and philosophy. I’m interested in something that ain’t there. They say, where’s imagination come from? It does come from somewhere, you just have to dig around.”

Concluding his 1980 interview with the Reader‘s Hammer, Gaard combined this sense of the mystical with a kind of ambition that—seen from the vantage point of 2012, on the eve of the opening of his largest museum show ever—seems prescient.

“I have very low expectations, but I have very high expectations for this work, to make each piece a further enhancement of what I’ve made already, in a direction toward something more magnificent,” he said. “It’s a Milquetoast existence, but a spiritual existence as an artist of the highest sort.”

Frank Gaard’s mockup of a Flash Art cover bearing a photo from a 1979 Art Police show

Installation view of Viewpoints—Frank Gaard Paintings, 1980, with Dionysus, 1979–1980, at left

Frank Gaard, 2004

Photo: Cameron Wittig

Frank Gaard, Billboard Spectacle (In Memory of Guy Debord), 2004

Photo: Cameron Wittig

Installation view of Viewpoints—Frank Gaard Paintings, 1980

Frank Gaard in 1981