THE LAST BREATH IN PAUL GARDÈRE’S LAST WORKS
by Andre Juste
The furtive presences, evocative shadows or symbolic spirits that seem to haunt the personas and worlds that Paul Gardère depicts in the last works he completed before he passed away on September 2, 2011, have generally been in one form or another a constant in his art. It’s through the pivotal role of such beings that viewers at times might find some clue on how to process or meditate on the deadlocked or devastating encounters between the contrasting socio-cultural and political forces stemming from colonialism and its legacy, the core subject of the artist’s oeuvre. But in past works, Gardère tends to present such supposed agents as mere witnesses more or less objective observers whose roles seem to be to record and apprehend for posterity the ineffable violence and desolation that result from such encounters. They don’t seem disposed to waste their breath on or editorialize about what they observe. But in Gardère’s last works this is no longer the case: He allows his conjured spirits to dictate or at least set the tone for his staged dramas.
This is a significant shift for an artist who, at least to some extent and strategically, may have marooned, as it were, his attitude toward his subject. The last works are a revelatory tipping point wherein Gardère chooses sides or, in a sense, comes home. And this of course is not so much a physical homecoming, or even a space in which to hone a more desirable sense of national identity. It’s a philosophic and psychic realization that induces him finally to commit his last breath, so to say, as a supplement to that of the shadowy presences which, in various forms, he has long incorporated in his art. As seen also in the larger pieces among his last works, these invented spirits include the mysterious mud-encrusted hybrid creatures that seem to transcend time and space. They are also presented as emblems of various Vodou lwa (or spirits), such as the ubiquitous Gédé (or short) crosses representing Bawon Samdi, the leading spirit of death and procreation. In some of Gardère’s smaller pieces, which may very well be fragments planned for larger works—but which nonetheless could stand alone—he presents close-up portraits of such mud figures and, at times, reduces their presence to just their cracked lips.
Gardère’s customary distance from his subjects is evident in most of the works he presented in a large solo exhibition at the Jersey City Museum in 1999. It’s worthwhile to examine from this show just one piece, “Self-Portrait with Hector Hyppolite” (1998). For this is a picture that telegraphs the dynamic that has led to Gardère’s eventual homecoming, and it exemplifies quite well the previous distance and objective tone he maintains toward his subjects. Appended on the picture’s upper right side on a large field of magenta glitter is a large reproduction in faded colors of Hyppolite’s iconic self-portrait in white jacket and hat and an unknotted pink tie that hangs flat from the white collars of his shirt. (The veteran primitif art-besotted and expressionist artist Emmanuel Merisier would sometimes sport his tie in a similar manner when he roamed New York City’s galleries and museums). Abutting the lower left edge of the picture is Gardère’s own well groomed black and white self-portrait, with a glint in his eyes. His carefully detailed image shows just the frontal part of his face, making his likeness look like a death mask which, by means of the temples of his eyeglasses, he hooks up behind the ears and over the face of who evidently looks like a Basquiat persona, presented as a hipster with a loose pink tie and a crown of spiky budding dreads. In all, one might be tempted to infer that the subtext of the work has to do with a certain trinity that Gardère is trying to establish among three artists of various Haitian backgrounds.
But the tenor of “Self-Portrait with Hyppolite” is such that Gardère seems hardly interested in such a romanticized, far-fetched alliance—a comradeship he himself feigns to initiate but that he actually proffers more as a bait to the reflexive nationalists among his viewers. (Years ago, the susceptible Merisier was for a long time quite miffed after he tried to reach out to Gardère who, allegedly, didn’t bother to give him the time of day). The entire work is a sort of tragicomic masquerade about three mismatched artists of quite different temperaments and leanings: Hyppolite, brilliant as he was as an erstwhile Vodou priest turned artist, presents himself as a haloed elect—or as a man-about-town who managed to transcend a life of illiteracy and penury to end up with a meteoric, three-year career that to this day virtually no one even among his would-be champions fully understands or appreciates since, among other vexing problems, most of his works are presumably scattered and, thus, practically unaccounted for. Basquiat, who after his trying days in Washington Square Park and the streets of the East Village, transformed himself into a “flyboy in the buttermilk,” a wunderkind whose often brilliant art and tragically short career have hardly been parsed to the extent that they’ve been exploited or oversold.
The upshot in “Self-Portrait with Hyppolite” is that Gardère negates or keeps at a cool distance all but the masquerade that he presents: It’s as if simply to mimic his two prematurely dead predecessors he, too, were pretending to dress up for a part, as if to crash a big art world party by faking and muscling his way through its gatekeepers, just as he fakes or diligently copies his way through the impressionist garden landscape he attaches under the lower right side of the work. Most importantly, even the masked, partly camouflaged genderless spirit in black glitter that Gardère juxtaposes next to his rendition of the impressionist garden seems oblivious to his attempted permutations of his identity in the picture. Still and expressionless, it pretends not to witness anything—except that its mien is that of a trickster, protean type. As such, it’s Gardère’s self-effacing co-conspirator, so to say—the pivotal entity that, in spite of its aloof presence, opens up to viewers the paths to the painting’s various layers of meaning. Gardère himself, pretending to present the entire picture as if in the socially conscious mode of some of the representational modernists he might have studied with as an undergraduate at Cooper Union, paradoxically maintains, perhaps like one of the unflappable minimalists-conceptualists who might have mentored him in graduate school, a marked and sustained distance from his subject.
But in his last works, Gardère chooses sides or also comes home in another sense—as a Haitian artist. This is not to suggest, however, that his art practice or aesthetic attitude is similar to or in sync with most of those of his compatriots. For one thing, he may very well be the first Haitian-born artist to have received extensive formal art training at the university level, leading to his earning an M.A. from Hunter College in 1972. More importantly perhaps, he had given himself a sustained and thorough grounding in the art of the original Haitian primitifs from the late-forties and fifties. On those two fronts alone, his is a postmodern sensibility, one that supersedes the modernist variants produced by, say, Hector Hyppolite and Rigaud Benoit, to cite just two artists whose art Gardère has prominently incorporated in his work. Moreover, in the deliberate way in which he likes to compose his elliptical pictures so as to force or wring out from them—not simply unforeseen—but significantly worthwhile or revelatory meanings, he is more in line with the contrarian Hervé Télémaque, who settled in Paris in 1961. Gardère might have unknowingly run into him when he, fresh from Haiti, studied at the Arts Students’ League in 1960-61. Nevertheless, much more so than in Télémaque—one might get a clear indication of this need to be seen through the lens of Haitian art in much of Gardère’s earlier works—arguably, for instance, in the transparently earnest way he goes about—not just appropriating—but copying both old and modern European masters—as a colonial subject might consciously mimic a colonial tongue so as to sample alternate ways of generating meanings for himself and his audience. Or more obviously, besides his use of Vodou imagery and symbols, one could see Haitian art in Gardère practice in his constant use of glitter, a “low” material that brings to mind the look of Vodou flags.
Gardère has come home in his last works and eliminated the calculated distance from his subject for other pressing reasons. For instance, far from being about the art world and his place or identity in it, and far from his usual concerns with the old and more recent encounters in the history of colonialism and its legacy, his subject matter in the last months and weeks of his life has become more eminent and personal. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti and, as devastating, death or its premonition in the midst of love have precipitated the shift in his final disposition. In a “ménage a trois” work—words inscribed on the painting’s surface—he presents two lovers embracing with the somewhat indistinguishable words Lanmou ak Lanmò (love and death) written under them. (Gardère‘s wife of forty-two years, Marcia, had gotten seriously ill and passed away a few weeks before he did). In a painting about the earthquake, over which he writes "goudou goudou", the onomatopoeic Haitian word for the fearsome sound of the calamity that took the lives of some two-to three-hundred thousand victims, the artist prominently represents a dark mysterious being with what look like a whip in hand and a bugle in its mouth—as if to galvanize and lend succor to a wounded and dazed upside down figure. The cutoff Gédé cross in the left panel of the picture adds to the idea that the dark figure made out of mud—with a touch of glitter on its head—may very well be a manifestation of Bawon Samdi, who sees through time or through life and death.
Gardère dispenses with his customary distance in another of his last paintings, which bears the Haitian word “katastròf" (catastrophe) over much of its surface. Here, with Bawon’s top hat crowning its head, the presumed sufferer or earthquake victim being addressed seems to be communing with the conjured spirit which Gardère subtly presents in the picture with its index finger piercing as if through the threshold between the world of les invisibles (the invisibles ones or spirits) and that of the living. Crucially—and despite the details of the supposed mass graves being dug up by backhoes shown toward the bottom edge of the picture--the artist seems to throw in his lot with the probability of transcending death. This conscious siding with life—and thus, on Gardère’s part, with Bawon—is symbolized by the numerous pwen (power points or stores of energy) in the form of light dots or small circles that he often dispenses over the surface of his work.
That Gardère has come home in his last works--and hardly shows any significant signs of wanting to return to the approach that distanced him from his subjects—and that have also led him to his final stance--is also evident in some of what may or may not be fragments conceived for other mixed-media paintings he was planning. Among them is the torso of a trickster-like figure made out of mud as if it hails from Bawon’s realm. Sporting spectacles and what look like optical instruments, he points an accusatory or cautionary finger. And as if to commit himself even further in his new disposition, Gardère depicts in another supposed fragment, which may well be a complete work in itself, the profile of a mud figure with what looks like wings on its back. But, conspicuous as it is, though this primordial hybrid figure appears self-contained and visibly inactive, it’s plausible that it’s Gardère himself who has directly enabled its cast shadow to gesticulate with an arm, especially since the figure itself does not show or even possess an arm. It’s also Gardère himself who seems to have amplified its inaudible speech—as if the shadow in his art, as well as the invented spirit that inhabits it, finally and once and for all, were his mouthpiece.