TOM GARDNER ARTICLE, CONTINUED:
By the age of 16 – after stints in Austria, England and Canada - Gardner (born Tomas Garry Maria Zahradnyk) was in Connecticut, studying at the Norwich School of Art under, among others, Alexy Von Schlippe, the ex-pat Russian-born Baron and artist turned art professor and personal mentor. During the 1960’s diverse awards began to come Gardner’s way, from the Hartford Courant and the Ford Motor Industrial Arts division, to the Newton Perkins Award for excellence in drawing. His first one-man show in 1964 at the D’Alessio Gallery in New York, and subsequent shows in New York and Los Angeles drew stunned praise from critics including journalist and author Charles Kriebel: “powerful…strong…strange depictions of even stranger figures… a totally captivating exhibition of a new and developing talent,” and from Francis Bacon expert L.E. Levick: “Tom Gardner exhibits paintings that often achieve power and excellence…many of his incisive, satirical drawings look like memos for an analyst.” He even had a brief, futile partnership with Salvador Dali in 1966.
Gardner’s set design work and stage collaborations began in the late ‘60’s with his wife, Fulbright Scholarship recipient and modern dance provocateur Barbara (Greer) Gardner. Her symbiotic bond with horses, love for circus performance and boundary breaking dance performances infused his art for the next decade.
His paintings, with their overtones of Francis Bacon, Chaim Soutine and other equally raw artists, are overcrowded with howling men with mouths full of distorted teeth, animals – barnyard, human and otherwise – being led to the slaughter, contorted freak performers, clowns who might be Nazi prison guards, Nazi prison guards who might be clowns, a naked and muscular Blind Justice uncomfortably holding both scales and a circus parasol, skeletal conductors leading vanquished orchestras, and entire circuses wheeling down emerald roads into sundrenched oblivion. There are sculptures of women constructed of used up, dried out art supplies; perched on empty turpentine cans, they look like they’re one match away from going up in flames.
His thousands of spasmodic drawings feel like serial seizures – fierce and filled with restless tremors and unstoppable movement. There are exhaustive repetitive renderings of the dressed and undressed Barbara Gardner dancing, performing, spinning around, holding a gun to her head, or riding horses. There are dozens of notebooks filled with the explosions of aggressive yet somehow helpless sexual desires, acts, frustrations, fantasies and dreams, of female dominance and male submission.
Perhaps Gardner found some peace through releasing his pain onto canvas and paper. Perhaps modern audiences can find the same, looking at his work.