Two years ago, I wrote one of my first art reviews for this article on the painter Harold Garde. The works then on display at Waterfall Arts in Belfast, where Garde maintained a summer studio (he lives the rest of the year in Florida), were stunning for many reasons, including their size. Six and seven feet wide, with great looping brushstrokes, it was incredible to me that a 97-year-old man could produce something of this scale and vigor.
At the opening of “Harold Garde: American Expressionist,” his retrospective now at Cove Street Arts (through July 9), I finally met Garde and was bowled over in a whole different way: He had traveled from Florida – at 99! – to participate. He looked much younger than his age and stood for a long time, albeit with the aid of a walker, before accepting a seat. “I think we saw the last of those,” he admitted of the Waterfall Arts paintings, admitting they were a little more than he could physically handle (but just a little).
There are none of these parts here, but what is here articulates the portrait of a restless and resilient artist who forged a very unique and experienced style in a way that resulted in an entirely new printing technique. Many paintings are from the 1990s, one from 1967 (“Lurch”). The show also includes a generous amount of strappos. This is the printing technique which Garde is credited with inventing, developing and naming (at least according to Wikipedia; Garde himself more humbly uses the term “developed”).
It’s wonderful to see these many strappos because it shows the extent possible with this innovative process. Garde told me that he likes to mix his acrylic paints on a piece of glass. When they dried, he was able to peel them directly from the non-porous glass so he could mix in a new color palette. Sometime in the 1980s, it occurred to him that he could actually create works directly on glass (or other non-porous surfaces), peel them off, and apply them to paper. He could also apply these monotypes to other works, layering them until he was satisfied with the resulting image.
You might be thinking, why bother creating a painting and just transferring it to another surface rather than just creating it on this other surface? But think for a moment about how a strappo changes the creative process. In a sense, a strappo upsets the artist’s mind, forcing him to work almost upside down. You cannot, for example, paint the background and then paint landscapes or figures on it. You need to paint the subject first and then the background. Otherwise, when you transfer the image, all you will see is the background.
It’s manna for an inquisitive mind like Garde’s. This requires forethought when layering images in a way that conventional painting does not. It also creates unique effects in paint quality. As the show’s title suggests, Garde is an expressionist, a style that relies heavily on free, often spontaneous gesture. In this form of print you clearly see the brush strokes. But paint often reacts in less expected ways because the surface it paints on is not absorbent.
Take 2013’s “Untitled (Yellow Kimono)”. When Garde applied this paint to the glass, it clearly didn’t adhere evenly. Rather, it created a network of fine capillaries that preserved the liquid quality of the paint on the transferred image. The scientific name for this phenomenon is thermo-capillary convection, or what oenophiles more commonly call the “legs” of a wine. The effect makes the kimono look almost ghostly, as if oscillating between manifestation and non-manifestation.
The same happens on my favorite strappo “Untitled Work on Paper No. 150”. Two red shapes in the foreground exhibit this quality, appearing as forms of a tree, bush, or veined leaf, or perhaps a microscopic life form. Other red spots seem to float around them, flashing rapidly. The gestural brushstrokes behind them imply either a hasty horizontal movement of currents or an allusion to the landscape. It is a one-piece jewel and recalls, in an abstract way, the work of Yves Tanguy.
The Tanguy reference, whether intentional or (most likely) not, is part of Garde’s aesthetic predilections. Faces and bodies seem to melt and metamorphose. Many float in indeterminate circles. One, in the painting “Sage”, seems to contain a landscape in his head.
The paintings are boldly colored and palpably emotive. Garde’s interest in the human figure and, in particular, heads, permeates many works. Many of them telegraph complex, but often impenetrable, mixtures of emotions. “Self Portrait As a Stranger” from 1987 is one such painting. The title implies that the artist is a stranger – but for whom? To himself? To others? In the art world? To a relative? We don’t really know. What is noticeable are the subject’s multiple layers of sadness, loneliness, melancholy, longing and almost childlike innocence. This figure is extremely touching. It made me want to hold him and comfort him.
The “Rêverie” painting has nothing to do with it. The two characters here are unsmiling and may seem to have no effect. But we feel that behind their hollow gaze, there is a universe of thoughts, dreams, desires. All of these figurative pieces exude vulnerability, the quality that more or less defines our humanity. It is a form of openness that allows the world of our feelings to enter, instead of walling off or closing off what most distinguishes us from other creatures.
This vulnerability hides a great ambiguity, the common thread of Garde’s work. In documents for the Waterfall Arts exhibit two years ago, he said the paintings were intentionally “incomplete” so the viewer could complete them. I then suggested that “complete” them was not the point because that would fix our ideas about them instead of allowing them to breathe and live in a universe of possibilities.
This universe allows multiple readings at different times, depending on where we are. They might elicit one thing from us when we’re feeling blue, an entirely different interpretation when we’re feeling strong and confident. They become vessels that we can project ourselves onto, allowing us to become witnesses, a kind of detachment from our tangled sense of self.
In this perspective, we are invited to contemplate who and what we are. In a way, they are all like the strappos – once removed from their initial state of creation and existence, which gives us the opportunity to consider that we too are constantly transforming from state to state. other, from one form to another, part of the perpetually spontaneous creation of reality.
Garde thus transforms the act of painting into an act of contemplation for the viewer – not just of the images themselves and their hidden meanings, but of ourselves and the nature of our being.
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]
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