KAREL FUNK AND TIM GARDNER
[This feature article appeared as "Newing the Old: The Art of Tim Gardner and Karel Funk" in Border Crossings magazine, August 2008, 132-141]
The recent Courbet exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum got everyone thinking about contemporary realist painting, especially photo-based painting. Sometimes Courbet used photographs as sources, but he also associated "realism" with visible, palpable stuff, his materialist philosophy being partly signified by thick paint. Courbet's palette-knife landscapes look so much like twentieth-century tourist art that they are difficult to look at now, but his nudes and his social paintings are unparalleled in the questions they raise about art, sex, politics, and life. With caveats, contemporary realists like the young Karel Funk and Tim Gardner can be placed somewhere in the orbit of the French Academy (which Courbet both loathed and courted) and Courbet. And, as we know, the Academy is in full revival everywhere now, from John Currin, whose commentary on Courbet is available on the Metropolitan Museum's website, to Alexander Melamid to Kehinde Wiley to Kent Monkman.
Unlike the impasto-crazy Courbet, or even the erstwhile academician John Currin, Funk and Gardner's techniques result in surfaces that are as transparent as a video screen, no doubt because of the digital world in which these young artists grew up.
Realist painting is above all about its subjects and only secondarily about this or that technique. When someone makes a painting based on a photograph, they should ask themselves the following questions: How will this painting add some kind of value to its photographic source? Is the real meat of the art in the source photograph and not in the painting made from it? Why is the photograph itself not enough: why not give us the photo or a Photoshopped version of the photo as the final work of art, since they themselves qualify as art?
Much of the power of an early Gardner painting lies in the incongruent use of a delicate - even feminine - watercolour technique in the depiction of a rough young male suburban party animal subculture. Watercolor is an unforgiving medium, and Gardner is an expert at it. The fact that the source photographs for many of Gardner's early works were taken by his brother supports a powerful myth, however contradicted by the lives of artists such as Caravaggio and Modigliani, that a raucous lifestyle must preclude the ability to make sensitive works.
There are but few serious contemporary artists who make watercolor paintings today. One thinks of Elizabeth Peyton, Walton Ford, Nancy Spero, Lucas Samaras and Eric Fischl -- the latter of whom once curated both Funk and Gardner into a Southampton exhibition -- and a couple of others. Indeed, Edward Hopper and Homer Watson might come to mind before contemporary artists as one marvels at a Gardner watercolour painting.
Pastel, which Gardner took up more recently, is even more rare in contemporary art, and one tends to look even further back to the era of the French Enlightenment when casting about for precedents.
Gardner uses uncommon media to render the most common images, saving them from obscurity by means of his intense labour. I relate Gardner's more recent pastel renderings of ordinary sometimes ceremonial or formal slices of daily life to the recent vogue for vernacular photography. The sweetest vernacular photograph has that special punctum, the thing that makes the anonymous image unusual or unique. Gardner provides the punctum in his skillful rendering of his family's pictures, which are of the type that would scarcely command a glance from a collector of vernacular photographs.
Funk and Gardner's works are only superficially similar, even if Funk is a kind of watercolourist, too. Funk uses layers of transparent acrylic, sometimes mixed with gloss medium, to build up his gessoed surfaces. The classic Funk painting of a young man in Gore-Tex lost in his headphone world is also part of a set of "ordinary" subjects like Gardner's, but Funk's young men are glamorous, idealized everymen and not recognizable family members.
Funk must invent his transparent acrylic paint layering technique on his own as he paints. As has been pointed out by others, he'd be the envy of a Renaissance master. (Astonishingly, he has said that he started painting at the age of 20.) Although he paints in acrylic, a post-war medium, the paint handling is reminiscent of the young Leonardo's oil glazing in the angels that he painted for his master Andrea del Verrocchio about 1470. If you x-rayed Funk's or Leonardo's painting, you would not find anything under the glazes but a white surface.
Both Funk and Gardiner graduated from Winnipeg's University of Manitoba School of Art about a decade ago. Like many others, they are both often vaguely referred to as "Canadians," a label that does not encourage subtlety in international discussions of their roots.
Gardner was born in the United States of Canadian parents, and moved from Waterloo, Ontario to Winnipeg in the twelfth grade when his father took a position at the University of Manitoba. Funk, who still lives here, is as Winnipeg as it is possible to be.
The Winnipeg that Funk and Gardner inhabited not so long ago as art students was the town that conceptual art forgot. The University of Manitoba School of Art never went through the 1960s crises undergone by schools such as the Nova Scotia College of Art (now NSCAD University) and the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD). Nobody like Garry Neill Kennedy in Nova Scotia or Roy Ascott in Toronto ever put Winnipeg's art school though the kind of radical transformation that pushed painting and drawing to the margins of cool.
Importantly for Funk and Gardner, photography was established as an academic area in Winnipeg in 1974. The thriving photo, printmaking, and painting areas at the University of Manitoba made for a school dominated by flat things that hung on walls. (It is important to note that new media like video had to wait as late as the 1990s before they could formally establish themselves at the University of Manitoba School of Art. Indeed, performance art is still pursued now under the rubric "drawing.") It was almost as if Winnipeg's traditionalist art school had decided to hide out until the renewed focus on drawing and painting in the 1990s could give its graduates a leg up.
Funk and Gardner's work, like that of other Winnipeggers who came of age in the last decade, looks both contemporary and archaic, perfectly suited to today's art world in which we can view Medieval manuscripts online after a Google search. History is available to these artists as never before, and making new art using the techniques and sensibilities of ancient times has become, for them, normal. Artists such as Courbet or the Academicians are, after all, a mere mouse click away.
Again: in Funk and Gardner's generation, no Winnipeg art student was ever told that painting and drawing were irrelevant or old-fashioned art media. It is notable that even artists who use many media here, such as photographer /sculptor Sarah Anne Johnson and video/performance artist Daniel Barrow -- both roughly of Funk and Gardner's vintage -- are highly skilled at drawing.
Funk and Gardner's contemporaries at the School of Art in the late nineties included members of the Royal Art Lodge collective, and It is worth stressing the major difference, at least as I see it, between the realist works of Funk and Gardner and the more speculative works of Marcel Dzama Michael Dumontier, Jon Pylypchuk, Neil Farber, Adrian Williams, Drue Langlois and Hollie Dzama. Funk and Gardner both use young men as subject matter, but by contrast, the consciousness of young men and adolescents is the subject of much Royal Art Lodge art.
Both Gardner and Funk are quiet, introspective people, like most of their famous Winnipeg colleagues in the Lodge. I can personally attest to the fact that amongst the young Winnipeg artists who have become well known over the past ten years or so, very few could be described as "outgoing." It is heartening that such people can make it in today's art world.
Funk and Gardner are pretty much alone in their superrealist style amongst their era of School of Art colleagues, which is why I'd guess that the school's -- or maybe Winnipeg's -- inculcation of a traditional work ethic in its students is perhaps more important to a discussion of them than any emphasis on media. The University of Manitoba's unique undergraduate thesis program tends to fast track young artists into an early maturity, whether they are ready for it or not, by encouraging them to work a lot and to work alone. Students, Funk and Gardner included, got and get their own personal studio in a University of Manitoba building called the "Art Barn," where students meet with advisors, just like grad students.
There were very few established photorealist artists in Winnipeg that Funk and Gardiner could have turned to as mentors in the 1990s. Andrew Valko made and makes photo-based realist paintings, and became friends with Funk. Eva Fritsch and Steve Gouthro also made and make photorealist works. (Funk was in a group exhibition in 2000 at Winnipeg's now-defunct Site Gallery, which represented both Fritsch, Valko and, importantly Steve Gouthro.)
Winnipeg faculty member Steve Gouthro was one of Karel Funk's earliest supporters, and Steve Higgins and Diane Whitehouse -- neither of whom are photorealists -- were mentors. Gouthro was a technical advisor, too: he taught both Funk and Gardner. One of Funk's University of Manitoba teachers, Jeff Funnell, gave Funk his first solo show at his "Off Ice Gallery" which was, as the name suggests, Funnell's cleaned out academic office.
It is unlikely that these two would have known of Winnipegger David McMillan's early realist painting, or of Gordon Lebredt's superealism of the 1970s. In fact, the 1970s superrealists rarely come up in the literature about Funk and Gardner, and I wonder why. Is the connection too general, or had the superrealists faded from view by the time Funk and Gardner entered art school? As for international influences, Funk does cite Eric Fischl, Chuck Close and Lucien Freud.
Plug In Gallery, now called Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art, was under the curatorial leadership of Wayne Baerwaldt in the 1990s and early 2000s. Baerwaldt propelled many new graduates, including the members of the Royal Art Lodge, into prominence with their first off-campus exhibitions in the 1990s. I still remember vividly the day that I tagged along as Steve Higgins, as mentioned one of Tim Gardner's undergraduate teachers, walked the shy artist down to Plug In Inc. in 1997 in order to make a pitch to Baerwaldt, who subsequently gave Gardner his first public gallery solo exhibition.
Both artists benefited from the interest of Meeka Walsh and Robert Enright of Border Crossings magazine which supported all the young Winnipeggers who have gone on to international prominence.
Most important for Gardner and Funk was Columbia instructor Collier Schorr's introduction of Gardner's work to the powerful 303 Gallery in Chelsea. 303 produced a sold-out solo exhibition in 2000 that established Gardner's international reputation, and one in 2004 that put Funk's work on the map. The rest is, as they say, art history. The international clincher for Gardner was his recent solo show at London's National Gallery, where he was invited to spend some time with that institution's collection. For Funk it was certainly his show this year at the prestigious Museum of Contemporary Art in Montreal.