Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Erector Square: Frank and Joan Gardner

City-Wide Open Studios
50 Orange St., New Haven, (203) 772-2709
Erector Square: Joan and Frank Gardner
Oct. 13, 2007.

Frank Gardner's fabric mosaic was one of the nine works chosen for the Lasso Project. It is on view in the window of a parking garage on Orange Street, about a block from Artspace. I spoke with Frank and his wife Joan Gardner, also a renowned artist, in the Erector Square studio they were using to show their works.

Frank Gardner said that the work used in the Lasso Project is so large that it had to be taken into two pieces in order to get out of the room in which it is stored. It was put back together in its Ninth Square location on a Sunday when the parking garage wasn't open. The panels are held together by tight fasteners screwed into the wood.

"We're very pleased because it looks more three-dimensional than before," said Joan. Frank told the Lasso Project organizers to use spotlights rather than floodlights on the work because the spotlights, aimed from the side, highlight the textures of the fabrics.

There were three or four of the fabric mosaics on view in the Erector Square studio. They bring to mind the detailed photo mosaic portraits of Chuck Close. Each work is painstakingly planned in a grid format. Frank has a 30-step grayscale value system to which he keys the fabrics he purchases. Is this maroon paisley a 15 or a 16? He will view the fabric through a square cut in gray value 16 and decide: does it look darker or lighter in comparison?

When Joan turned off the lights in the room, there were audible gasps from the visitors.

"Oh! Look at that! That's amazing," one woman exclaimed. Mosaic images of a forest or the composer Mussorgsky that seemed lost in abstraction leapt out when the lights were down.

"Your cones in your eyes don't work when it's dark, just the rods," explained Joan. "So you just see values. It starts to look more three-dimensional" because the colors are de-emphasized.

Joan has published a set of 10 artist books in black and white, each in an edition of 30. A complete set of the 10 is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

"I got into that because Tyco could print blacks so nicely," she said. Joan had a number of hand-colored drawings from her artist books—wild primitive figures on rich black backgrounds—available for "cheap sales." Numerous recent paintings were displayed around the room. These days she works with acrylic, oil pastels and colored pencils, mostly on Mylar. Many of the paintings are based on older, larger works of hers. The recent ones are done, she said, "smaller and better."

"I have one [older] one that I'm destroying now because the little one is better," she said, chuckling.

"I've always been a storyteller and these are taken from medieval illuminated manuscripts and primitive art of all kinds," she said. "We have a library of odd books, two rooms of them. We collect funny story books. We have too many books to hold in this little house we live in."

Joan pointed one of the paintings, "Leg on a Table," based on an older, larger work of hers. In it, a society woman with a tiara and jeweled necklace sits with her leg up on the fancy restaurant table. Her dinner companion is a man with a bristling mane and medals on his dinner jacket. He looked a little like a werewolf to me; Joan said he was supposed to look like a lion.

"This is Frank. You can't tell so much anymore because he has a better haircut," she quipped. "The medals are to make him look important. This was inspired by a Weegee photograph of a society lady with her leg on the table."

There is an increasing convergence between Frank's and Joan's work. Lining the hall outside the door to the studio are numerous recent paintings by Frank that draw on much the same well of imagery that inspires Joan. Their drawn inner frames reminded me of Art Deco. According to Frank, they are actually based on motifs from medieval illuminated manuscripts. Rendered primarily in watercolor, ink and colored pencil, they are filled with figures from myth and pop culture, recognizable architecture—I saw the Chrysler Building—and even a toy robot that Frank and Joan animated for a short film in the late 1960's. Joan has a hand in the paintings.

"Joan knows costumes," said Frank.

"I help with the costumes in the drawings in the hall," she said.

"I have a costume adviser!" Frank declared.

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