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|Straight, White and Bittersweet
by Jerry Saltz
They say you can't go home again. But sometimes leaving it is just as hard. Such is the case of Tim Gardner, whose debut at 303 Gallery is comprised of 31 bittersweet, jewel-like watercolors and four comparatively stiff oil paintings.
Childhood and adolescence, the latter Gardner's focus, have been prevailing artistic themes since the late '80s. From the abject installations of Karen Kilimnik and Mike Kelley, to the realistic paintings and sculptures of Eric Fischl, Amy Adler, Jim Shaw and Robert Gober, to the diaristic photographs of Wolfgang Tillmans, Nan Goldin and Richard Billingham, artists have contemplated their origins, the subcultures of youth and coming-of-age.
Although the evolution Gardner portrays isn't abject, alienated or particularly remarkable, he brings all these artists together and adds something of his own. He makes identity art about normalcy, or what passes for it: being straight, white and middle-class. He's like a clean-living Larry Clark. Depicting the male adolescence he shared with his brothers and their buddies growing up amidst the suburban backyards, swimming pools and rec rooms of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Gardner converts snapshots into watercolor. In effect, he lovingly embroiders the life and times of this small circle of friends in paint. As a whole, these images form a sociological document and the quiet confession of an artist who, like many of us, needed more.
At first it's hard to figure out how -- at the age of 26, and before his first New York solo show -- Gardner ended up on the November cover of Frieze magazine. It's a long way for such a young artist to travel in a short time. It can be off-putting. And it could be said that I'm only adding to the hype. But while his technique is academic and his use of the medium skillful but standard, Gardner renders his world so intensely that he offsets the ordinariness and draws you in. Every detail sparkles, his characters feel genuine, his sense of milieu is convincing; you can make out labels on beer bottles, insignia on shoes, a Beavis & Butt-head poster the size of a postage stamp.
Think of this body of work as a bourgeois Brideshead Revisited. In place of spending days mired in torpid splendor, or sleeping with one another, we see a group of boys (women only come and go) drinking beer, hanging out, clowning around or trying to score. Instead of Waugh's elegant alcoholics, we get Gardner's goslings, who, while they bask and are blissful in one another's company, will never sleep together. Yet they inhabit their world with abandon.
Among the watercolors there's one of a beautiful summer day in a sunny backyard. Two boys bounce on a trampoline. One is caught midjump, the other is careful not to spill his beer. Completely at ease with one another, they are oblivious to anything but fun, and not dropping the brew. In fact, a lot of these images deal with alcohol. In the best, a young man the title identifies as Sto lifts a pint of whiskey while a slender girl (on another trampoline) rises above his bottle like a genie of happiness. Other watercolors picture the boys on the beach, watching football on TV, snowboarding, catching tennis balls in their shorts, swimming or running naked, and pissing off balconies or on lawns.
One depicts two buddies, wasted on the grass, who give us the finger, while a mounted policeman looks on, bemused. But there's no danger here. The policeman might smirk, or issue a warning, but the boys will be allowed to party on. It's true that the faces are all white, and the class is semiprivileged, but you get the sense this is partly where the new dotcom generation is coming from. Everything is permitted in the global democracy. The outdoors belong to these misadventurous guys; there's something to do in every backyard and nothing to worry about.
Yet something is missing from these images, and it is Gardner. The four pictures he appears in tell us a lot. In the only self-portrait, he poses before a mountain landscape. Lost without the guys and dwarfed by nature, this is a romantic youth in search of something. He's absent altogether in an image he took of the Taj Mahal. In another, he stands outside the lines of an ongoing basketball game, so that even while he is surrounded by his cohorts, he can't seem to escape a gnawing self-consciousness. Gardner makes you think of Fischl's characters, who have a similar watching-your-own-life disconnect. And in the last, as he grins gawkily at us from the center of his own going-away party (a background banner reads "Goodbye Tim"), we think of Curt Henderson, the character played by Richard Dreyfuss in American Graffiti, who is also torn about leaving. Like Curt, Gardner is a young man who is loved by and loves his friends, but who, like many of us, needs to be loved by people he doesn't know.
This is a strange and affecting first show, but it's not without problems. The oil paintings are earnest but conventional; they don't yet have the allure of the watercolors. Also, there's a primitiveness to the emotions within all the work -- something that makes it hard to know just where Gardner stands. Maybe it all comes back to adolescence, to a kind of genesis, that formative moment -- known or unknown -- that determines what we do with the rest of our lives. Many artists have clear-cut genesis moments. Some are mundane, some traumatic, some make for great stories. For some, genesis is a point of departure. For others, like Gardner, it is the subject.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.