Three years lie between cold days working in his Winnipeg studio and standing at the center of the New York art world.
Tim Gardner, MFA'99, has arrived.
Since graduating from the School of the Arts last May, Gardner, a native of Canada, landed his first solo show (at the 303 Gallery in Chelsea) and sold all 35 paintings exhibited there. He has received critical acclaim in The New York Times, Time Out, Art Forum and Bomb. He appeared on the cover of Frieze, an influential art magazine, and was featured in group shows at P.S.1 in Long Island City, a premier exhibition space affiliated with MoMA, and at the Covi-Mora Gallery in London.
"It tends to inflate your head," says Gardner. "The trick is to go back into the studio and keep doing what I've been doing."
Before coming to Columbia, Gardner had never even set foot in New York City. He was studying in the arts program at the University of Manitoba, enduring the six-month long winters. So sellout shows and magazine covers were unexpected, particularly because Gardner paints in watercolor ("Watercolors don't really fit into the New York art scene," he explains) and selects subjects that reflect everyday life back home.
The path to New York City was not a straight one for Gardner, who grew up in Ontario. Already accepted into the Yale MFA program in visual art, where his undergraduate professor encouraged him to go, Gardner opted to take a look at Columbia and made the long trip for an interview.
Watercolor by recent School of the Arts alumnus Tim Gardner, "Untitled (Sto & Nick in Pub)"
"The students here were upbeat," he says. "I liked seeing their relationships with the professors." The interview process with Columbia faculty also left the right impression. "It was really laid-back," he says. Gardner was so enchanted by the program's casual atmosphere, he turned down Yale, which he called "uncomfortable" in comparison.
His choice proved to be the right one. "When I came here, I hadn't really paid attention to the art world," he says. But Gardner's time in the MFA program exposed him to a variety of new experiences. "You can come [to Columbia] as a painter, but before you leave, you experiment with everything and it can really change your working methods altogether," he said.
Upon arriving, he formed a quick friendship with professor Archie Rand, chairman of the Visual Arts Division in the School of the Arts, for whom he would eventually work as a teaching assistant. "Archie was a mentor," Gardner says. "He was a really positive presence. He was always there for me."
Rand saw a kindred spirit in Gardner, but it was Gardner's painting that really captivated him. "I took one look at his work and said to myself, 'This guy gets it.' He's not making art that is answering academic or verbal questions. He's making works of necessity."
And the more Rand saw, the more he liked. "I realized what I was looking at was enclosed narrative, not just situations. Tim's skill elucidates, rather than masks, his personal concerns. His confidence becomes a display of intelligence."
It was the content of his paintings that caught the eye of photographer Collier Schorr, the MFA program's visiting artist for Spring 1999. Gardner's portrayal of young men expressing their youth impressed her so much, she recommended him to her own dealers at 303 Gallery who decided to sign Gardner and use him almost immediately in a group show there.
"Collier thought I would bring a new aspect to the gallery," says Gardner. Schorr's instincts proved right.
"Collier put him on the map," says Rand. "I'm extremely grateful to her. She's an extraordinarily generous artist."
Gardner's first solo show, which took place from January 8 to February 12 of this year, featured 31 small watercolors and 4 oil paintings. Every picture sold, something of a surprise to Gardner. When he painted them, art shows were the last thing on his mind. "I was trying to express my own agenda," says Gardner, who worked in watercolor despite the "hobbyist" label that he says many attach to it. "I painted the mini-watercolors to take a break from the tedium of big oil paintings."
In doing so, he found the pleasure of the work also produced more satisfying results. "With oil, I felt like I kept repeating myself. It was a dead end. It couldn't really evolve," says Gardner. "With watercolor, I found a lot more possibility."
Gardner's paintings almost always derive from photographs sent to him by his family and friends. The scenes usually depict a group of young men indulging in absurdities provoked by youth, boredom and uninhibited impulses.
Running naked through the woods or stuffing beer cans down their shorts, Gardner does not judge his subjects, often his brothers and friends. He seems more intrigued by the viewers' response to the antics of those in his pictures, especially in such natural settings. "Like a guy pissing on flowers in a sunlit landscape," he says.
But Gardner has other motives for painting his subjects from real photos. "Through recreating certain images, I can project myself into those situations," he says. "It doesn't necessarily mean I want to be there. It helps me contemplate my relationship to those people. It helps define my own place in the world."
"What moves me about Tim's work is the self-acceptance, the self-knowledge, and the joy of one's own youth," says Rand. "This is what he knows and has affection for. Being a good artist is about the courage of being able to accept, emit and transfer affection."
The scenes of parties and general irreverence have played an important role for Gardner, personally. "Through painting pictures of these people, I've gotten more connected to them," he says. "They became more interested in what I was doing. They can relate to it. It's their world."
Gardner manages to incorporate the grandiose Canadian landscape into his pictures with meaning and effect. The mountains, trees and fields of flowers become potent characters with intimate relationships to the people around them. In a sense, the reality of nature exposes their fears and dreams, perhaps, even those most neglected. His ability to paint nature with understanding, Rand says, comes from a strong Canadian heritage of artists that includes Arthur Heming, Archibald Browne and Tom Thomson.
Admittedly, Gardner has only two tangible goals as an artist: for the viewer to be seduced by natural beauty and then somewhat repelled by the crudeness of human behavior. "Some of [the paintings] I want to be biting," he says.
Beyond that, he can't quite put a finger on what message he wants to send through his pictures. All Gardner knows for sure is that painting is "The thing I can do the best," and that, "It makes it easier to exist." For now, for Tim Gardner, that seems to be enough.