New York

Bernard Gilardi, It’s a Draw, 1963, oil on Masonite, 36 × 48".

Bernard Gilardi, It’s a Draw, 1963, oil on Masonite, 36 × 48".

Bernard Gilardi

The poet and critic Parker Tyler, in the 1943 issue of View magazine titled “America Fantastica,” observed that the fantastic in art, “while primitive, is also sophisticated, since it makes direct appeal to that anarchy of elements which binds the most rational man to the lunatic.” I believe Tyler would have immediately recognized Bernard Gilardi as an artist of this stripe, and, if labels are useful at all, I find this a more informative way to explain what kind of artist he was than trotting out more conventional rubrics such as outsider, self-taught, or naïve. Born in 1920, Gilardi spent his life in Milwaukee, where he briefly attended a local art school, got married, then raised a family in a devout Catholic household while working in the printing trade. He never sought to exhibit the paintings he made on nights and weekends, and his wife did not want the products of his hobby hung in the house. Nonetheless, he produced four hundred works before his death in 2008. This exhibition, “We Belong,” presented by Maurizio Cattelan, included more than sixty of the artist’s creations, dated between 1963 and 1995.

What makes Gilardi’s paintings fascinating is their odd combination of grotesquerie—reminiscent at times of classic early Mad magazine illustrators, “the usual gang of idiots,” including Mort Drucker, Al Jaffee, and particularly Don Martin (though perhaps some of Gilardi’s stylizations were also used to conceal his struggles with anatomical drawing)—and a sublimely erotic enjoyment. Gilardi may be satirical, but he’s not critical; he appreciates the wonderful strangeness of things and identifies with it. The people he depicts frequently flash big smiles, and it’s up to us to decide, I guess, whether their self-possession means they have no idea how weird they look or that they’re downright proud of their bizarrerie. Probably both. Gilardi delights in human oddity for its own sake. Sometimes the body itself is contorted into wacky shapes: The short-haired bikini babe of Not That Different, 1989, is like a balloon animal; the birthday-suit-clad subject of Untitled (curly man), 1976, sports a corkscrew swirl on just about every part of himself, from nose to toes, not excepting his penis.

But more often the twists seem psychological. Gilardi’s perceptions, to cite Tyler again, “arbitrarily include all features of the social”; that is, the artist is riffing on quotidian observations and cultural myths. Take Cast the First, 1975, in which four background figures prepare to throw stones at the startlingly unconcerned nude woman in the foreground; or Fifty and Up, 1968, with its painter—dressed more appropriately for an exercise class—displaying her semiabstract wares at an outdoor art show. In It’s a Draw, 1963, a pair of bearded gunmen, naked but for their spurs and holsters, are sprawled on the ground in a pool of blood. Gilardi takes on scenes from the Bible and other religious topics (Stoned, 1968, seems to represent David’s triumph over Goliath), but with a curiosity that seems more anthropological than pious. Faith Proves, 1992, for example, depicts a snake-handling preacher in action. Race relations is another recurring theme, handled most succinctly in Untitled (big toes intertwined), 1972, and It’s a Deal, 1972, two treatments of the same motif, a shake of the feet (rather than hands) between a black foot and a white one. What exactly Gilardi might have meant to say with his imagery remains unsettled. More important was that his imagination could go to work on it with complete freedom, and that he could paint his fantasies, with rough yet delicate craft, in loving detail.