The Strange, Singular Vision of Milwaukee Outsider Artist Bernard Gilardi
It’s a familiar archetype: the 20th-century American dad, retreating to the garage or basement to build and tinker (while perhaps hiding out from the demands of domestic life). The late artist Bernard Gilardi had one such subterranean workshop in his home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but it wasn’t for practicing carpentry or refurbishing car engines. While working a day job as an etcher for a lithography company, and later as a security guard, Gilardi dedicated his spare time to a passionate painting pursuit. Over the course of his life, he made around 400 wonderfully bizarre works—mostly oil on masonite panel—the vast majority of which were never exhibited during his lifetime.
In Gilardi’s paintings, we see a feverish, unleashed imagination at play: A woman on the back of a wild-eyed rhino grabs on for dear life as the animal hurtles across a field; a man with what looks to be a Native American headdress grimly sports a necklace of ears; a figure, who appears to have been recently tarred-and-feathered, staggers down a country road pursued by dogs. Now the subject of a tremendous show at the New York gallery Shrine, co-curated by contemporary artist
“He just didn’t seem to have the time or desire to push [his paintings] out into the world,” said Debra Brehmer, director of Milwaukee’s Portrait Society Gallery, which now oversees the artist’s estate. “His self-taught, Sunday-painter peers were doing landscapes and barn scenes. Gilardi was much more sophisticated and weird. I’m sure he couldn’t find a very comfortable niche in which to insert his work.”
The specifics of Gilardi’s biography, and his approach to artmaking, are tantalizingly sparse. He pursued a collegiate path in art education, but soon quit; later, he worked at a paper mill and joined the military. Settled in Milwaukee with his wife and two daughters, Gilardi had to make a living, though he carved out precious time for his basement artistry. An essay that Brehmer penned about Gilardi recounts his daughter Mary’s thumbnail sketch of her father’s personality: He was “someone who enjoyed the frequent and large family gatherings. He was friendly, sometimes cynical, humorous, and sensitive. He carried life-long anxieties about financial matters and economic stability. He wore large glasses, was 5 foot 9 inches tall, adored his grandchildren and loved to eat.”
Gilardi’s own family members weren’t quite sure what to make of the intense images he was creating in his studio; the artist’s wife, and many of his relatives, were observant Catholics, though it appears that the artist himself was more interested in the religion’s narrative quirks. One astounding work in this vein is a cartoonishly bloody rendering of the David and Goliath saga. “I feel like Gilardi was asking how these stories would look today—and also emphasizing how essentially weird they are,” Brehmer said. “There is a portrait of Christ carrying his cross up the road, and Christ looks like a blonde Ken doll. One painting has a woman being martyred on a gas grill.”
More often, though, Gilardi’s source material lurked in the hidden corners of his own brain. Historical figures like John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln make occasional cameos. Nudity abounds, but mainly because his characters seem to exist in some Edenic paradise—one plopped down, improbably, in a vast Midwestern landscape. Scott Ogden, the owner of Shrine, is struck by Gilardi’s “strange, almost grotesque fascination with what’s under the skin,” evidenced by the way he depicts pulsing veins and other details. Not much is known about Gilardi’s own direct inspirations, though he did express an admiration for
“It is rewarding to look at these paintings with other people and ferret out the meaning,” Brehmer said. “Some remain total mysteries.” Indeed, staring long enough at a Gilardi involves a kind of poetic detective work, puzzling over recurring signs and symbols. Ogden is intrigued by the preponderance of red strings in various paintings, connecting characters like overly long Kabbalah bracelets; he surmised that white circles, placed randomly on naked bodies, might be a coy nod to Gilardi’s career as a dot-etcher.
Certain paintings possess a clear—albeit offbeat—message, like one in which a black foot and a white foot come together, their toes intimately interlocked. But ultimately, the artist’s true intent remains a tempting question mark—the viewer is free to place their own stories atop these eccentric scenes. I asked Cattelan, who first discovered this work a few years ago at the Outsider Art Fair and later introduced it to Shrine, to guess what sort of person Gilardi might have been. Ever the trickster, he chose to answer with a quote plucked from a pulpy horror novel by Simona Panova: “He did look like a deity—the perfect balance of danger and charm, he was at the same time fascinating and inaccessible, distant because of his demonstrated flawlessness, and possessing such strength of character that he was dismaying and at the same time utterly unattractive in an unsavory and forbidden way with jolts of sinister personality disorder.”
In today’s market-focused art world, a decades-long creative practice—pursued for personal satisfaction, and not financial gain—can seem almost perverse. Enjoying Gilardi’s work means immersing oneself in the impetuous twists and turns of his imagination, in these incomparable images made for their own sake.
I asked Brehmer what kept Gilardi motivated, despite any promise of fame, fortune, or adoring audiences. “He was an artist,” she said, simply. “That’s what he wanted to be, and he was an odd duck, an unusual personality. His daughter Dee Kuech says he truly saw the world differently than ‘normal’ people. Painting was a way for him to be fully who he was and express his thoughts—to be stuck in a life where all of that might have to be subdued or abolished would have been awful. I think he kept himself alive, psychically, by painting.”
Scott Indrisek is a contributing writer for Artsy.