New York

Tim Gardner

Young men at leisure in one another’s company has been a subject of art since the Greeks—and some constants tend to hold across divides of time, taste, and medium. The boy-men will be handsome, perhaps bare-chested, and will display an easy physical camaraderie, a homoerotic innocence. They will be shown accomplishing feats of physical prowess and enjoying the relaxation that follows. They will appear entirely at home in their world, unconscious masters of their environments pausing to taste luxurious youth before, presumably, entering serious masculine enfranchisement. There will usually be a whiff of possible destruction. Think Poussin’s Arcadians, Eakins’s bathers. Think Tim Gardner’s suburban guys.

In his first solo exhibition in New York, Gardner showed thirty-five paintings (four oils on canvas, the rest watercolors on paper; all works 1999). All were called Untitled, with parenthetical subtitles like Bhoadie, Nick, S, Matt & Tim playing basketball, Victoria; S pissing; and Matt & S with surfboards: Malibu. Again and again, in snapshot scenes from a year abroad (Tim photographing Taj Mahal) or summers off from school (Brad in pool with pink ball), Gardner presented late-adolescent males enjoying the fruits of late-twentieth-century suburban affluence: dudes doing some radical hanging out. There were lots of swimming pools and leafy backyards attached to ranch-style houses, very few women, lots and lots of beer—all captured in exquisite detail in watercolor miniatures. Under Gardner’s hand, each face becomes specific, every highlight correct. His brushwork is so assured that from across the room the photographic illusion held perfectly; some images didn’t dissolve into painted gesture until the viewer stood two feet away.

Clearly, something subversive is at work here. In a sense, nothing’s happening except that Gardner has used a delicate, effeminate medium to render the Animal House antics of his pals, a juxtaposition that stimulates some gender and genre bending. Suggestive of Jane Austen heroines drawing in the parlor—or Romantic heroes sketching in the Alps—watercolor seems positively kinky for Pissing off balcony, Vancouver. Intimate, translucent, painstaking, these images cannot perform the macho roles they describe. Even their status as Photorealism has a certain preciousness. In the contrast between medium and message, the watercolors create a distance that arrests exuberance and flattens nostalgia, catching the robustly good-natured narcissism of Gardner’s subjects in a fragile, fetishistic light. This frisson disappears in the oil paintings, which are larger and less luminous and thus not so ineffably risqué.

What does Gardner think about these tropes of masculinity, these real-life actions and realist traditions? Consider the product placement. Lovingly included as part of the visceral texture of these guys’ existence are the logos emblazoned on things that touch their skin and fill their mouths—LA Lakers cap and Calgary Flames T-shirt, Trans Am, Taco Bell. Tim, Brad, Bhoadie, and the rest are in a sense brand names themselves, a minor dream team representing jocular freedom and masculine Americana. But there’s a shadow side to this, and the threat of having to grow up and join corporate society as producers as well as consumers is only its most obvious aspect. Will our heroes suffer drunken accidents, petty arrest, general failure to continue in such realms of happy privilege? Will they have existential crises? They might. Some boys do. If Gardner keeps thinking about male cultures of intimacy and self-representation, we may find out.

Frances Richard