A man in dark sunglasses sits in a wheelchair in his artist studio. Behind him, a painting of his Top 10 list of poets, beginning with John Keats and Emily Dickinson and ending with Georges Bataille, is propped against the wall next to a canvas containing a bright orange house and matching pony. A cane with neon pink and green striped tape leans against his crossed legs.
"Well, my name is Frank Gaard," he says hesitantly.
"That was probably the seventh take," explains Minneapolis Institute of Art curator Nicole Soukup about the introductory video filmed less than a month ago.
Gaard, the pivotal Minneapolis artist known for his cartoonish pop-culture appropriations, obsessive paintings and longtime 'zine Artpolice, is the subject of "Under the Influence: Early Works by Frank Gaard," a show at Mia that examines the artist's early years in Chicago, the Bay Area and the Twin Cities, where he taught at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) for nearly two decades.
The show presents work from the 1960s through mid-1970s, when he had his first mental breakdown and was diagnosed as bipolar. While the Walker Art Center presented an extensive retrospective of Gaard's work in 2012, this intimate exhibition focuses on how his style formed.
"He came here to teach at MCAD and, you know, Minneapolis in the '60s is not Minneapolis in the 2010s," said Soukup. "It was more a backwater of the art world, so I think unlike his peers [in other cities] he didn't get the same kind of commercial attention."
Soukup started working on the show with Gaard three years ago, parsing through loads of sketchbooks in the artist's studio, some untouched for years.
The show ended up becoming an excavation, with finds like the 1970 drawing "Untitled (Pattern of Oblong Rings Over Colorful Dashes)" bubbling up from the depths of his studio. The floating circles look like either blood cells or doughnuts, depending on one's state of mind.
"We saw so many sketchbooks filled with this kind of art and movement and gesture," said Soukup. "If you wanted to take a psychoanalytic role, it becomes manic."
Gaard's style is a bit Chicago Imagist, a lot obsessive-compulsive, all mixed with loud, at times putrid, color schemes influenced by color-theory studies, philosophy, poetry and psychology.
The artist grew up in Chicago. His father was a Norwegian immigrant and his American-born mother was hospitalized with schizophrenia for much of his youth. Factories, buildings and the cold concrete of the city formed childhood backdrops.
He found his safe haven in art class. Gaard graduated in 1967 from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he was influenced by Chicago Imagists like Karl Wirsum. The following year he got an MFA from the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, where he worked with artist Peter Saul and midcentury modernists.
He moved to Minnesota in 1969, the same year that he and his first wife celebrated the birth of his son Peter.
This biographical back story and earlier screen prints and photos from the mid-1960s and early 1970s shine light onto his inner workings and creative style.
"Yo Ho Boy," a 1965 screen print, depicts a sailor woman copied from commercial advertising. The stylistic roots of Artpolice, a 'zine (1974-94) that looked like a manic combo of comic book and bathroom stall scribblings, can be seen in the 1966 collage "Untitled (Rainbow)," which combines black-and-white pinup photos of women, line drawings, text, triangles and clouds. In the screen print "Costumed Ball" (1970), viewers will catch his love for pop culture. Here, a Little Red Riding Hood dances with a blue-colored wolf.
The exhibition leads viewers up to 1974, when Gaard first experienced mental breakdowns that would now be categorized as bipolar disorder. Repetitive small faces and figures, paired with messages or notes, and the use of neon colors, caricatures, swans and underpants would become key elements in his work.
Some of these 1970s works seem like something seen on Instagram today, like the undated "Untitled (Speech Bubble on Pink Background," a white speech bubble with the text "pretentious expensive impermanent vain shallow" on a pastel pink background and signed "Frankie G."
"This pink bubble, it's worked and reworked at a later date," said Soukup." I think like any artist, Frank is using the materials at hand, going back to things. Thoughts and processes linger. ... It's not a linear story despite what curators and historians try to do."