Bernard Gilardi: We Belong at Shrine delves into the strange oeuvre of an outsider artist who produced over 400 paintings in his Milwaukee basement studio. Gilardi, who worked by day as a dot etcher for lithography companies, created a body of work that is hopeful, grotesque, sexual, humorous, and disturbing. His paintings were not exhibited during his lifetime, but after his death, his family chose to make his work public.
We Belong presents 63 works, most hung salon-style along one wall of the gallery. It’s clear that Gilardi had certain preoccupations: religious themes, an interest in nature, exaggerated sexual imagery, and homosexuality. Sometimes his paintings appear to contrast with what is known about Gilardi’s life as a Catholic family man. Other works possess a sincerity that is easier to reconcile with his biography.
Adam and Eve imagery repeats throughout the show. In “Green is Clean”(1986), a couple sits atop a giant lily pad. Their idealized, fit bodies are clad in nothing but underwear and barely touch at the shoulder. Both the innocence of the interaction and the otherworldly natural background evoke a virgin paradise. “Allmost There [Sic]” (1990) shows two figures drawn only in outline and wading in a river surrounded by green hills. Their bodily ephemerality and the pristine background once again suggest Adam and Eve. This theme repeats in at least two other works in the show. However, not all of Gilardi’s religious allusions are positive. For example, “Dogma” (1964) shows a grotesque creature — half-monkey and half-man — chained with a collar and leering with animalistic teeth. Dogma here is shown to be a deformed beast that must be kept captive. Gilardi appears to be fascinated by certain religious themes and yet disgusted by others. His paintings suggest a push-and-pull within himself: On one hand, he explores biblical themes with sincerity — for example, in the Adam and Eve works; on the other hand, he is willing to satirize, even demonize, the notion of dogma.
Gilardi’s nudes are often exaggeratedly voluptuous. In “Betty’s Backyard” (1975), a woman with full hips and large breasts lies in a garden bed, her face garishly rendered. In “End of the Evening” (1976) a curvy woman clad in a bikini peers out from behind a stage curtain, suggesting perhaps a strip show or a transactional tryst. In “May Time Merry” (1964) Gilardi has rendered a naked woman doing a backflip over a field of flowers. Her blonde pigtails, limbs, and disproportionately large breasts seem disjointed, grotesque, and maybe a little humorous. There is something removed about Gilardi’s gaze on the female nude. It is difficult to ascertain if he intends for outsized body parts to be erotic or to be a comment on vulgarity. This ambiguity seems particularly American, referencing Playboy-infused standards of beauty that are seen by varied viewers as desirable, exploitative, or a mix of the two. In the current moment, it’s hard to not see Gilardi’s nudes through a dark lens of Trump-era aesthetics in which the exceedingly garish appears seductive to many Americans.
Themes of homosexuality and gender identity appear repeatedly. In “Untitled (cross-dressing family)” (1994), the presumed father wears pink heels, a short pink dress, and a large pink hat decorated with a garland of flowers. The mother is dressed in a suit, and the child appears gender-neutral, clad in a simple collared shirt and shorts. “Whichever Pleases” (1990) depicts two figures, one facing the viewer and one with their back to the viewer. Both wear ties facing forward, and the gender of the second figure is unclear. When exploring sexual themes, ambiguity rears its head again; it’s tricky to know if Gilardi painted out of curiosity, longing, tolerance, or disgust. Sometimes his motivation seems to be a mix of all of the above. What is certain is that he successfully pushes the envelope, certainly within a Catholic context.
Gilardi’s work isn’t fully able to be placed within other well-known art-historical trends. This might make viewers aware of just how much we rely on these typical sorts of critical contexts. The show’s title offers one possible thematic cohesion to classify his work: “We Belong” suggests a positive grouping of misfits, a hopeful interpretation of the ambiguity within Gilardi’s paintings as a sanctuary for the odd.
Bernard Gilardi: We Belong continues at Shrine (179 East Broadway, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through March 17.
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