Self-taught painter Bernard Gilardi’s “private iconography” comes to Wriston

Paul Smirl

The Wriston Center’s Kohler gallery opened its first exhibition of the year Friday, Jan. 6: a series of paintings by self-taught artist Bernard Gilardi titled, “Bernard Gilardi: A Private Iconography.” Accompanied by a lecture by Debra Brehmer, owner of the Portrait Society Gallery in Milwaukee, the exhibition opening was a celebration and discussion of the late artist’s prolific career, one that was literally held underground until his death.

Hailed as a visionary by Brehmer, Gilardi, a husband, father and blue-collar worker, was never a praised artist during his lifetime. Having produced some 400 paintings from his basement studio, Gilardi lived a double life, spending his days hunched over as a color corrector for a lithography company and his nights fashioning myriad works of art, ranging in subject matter from the culture of his native Wisconsin to the wonders of nature. However, the works, brilliant and surreal, never made it upstairs — or into the art world, for that matter — until Brehmer received notice from Gilardi’s family following his passing.

Having only been shown in Milwaukee, Gilardi’s Kohler Gallery Exhibition focuses heavily on the painter’s religious-themed works, which after being brought into public consciousness by Brehmer have been heralded for their whimsical yet dark commentary on the nature of Christianity and spiritual life.

Harrowing yet cartoonish, Gilardi’s Kolher Gallery selections are depictions of grand events from the Bible, but resonate with modern viewers due to their 20th century slants. “Blood, Faith and Tears,” for instance, is a 1960s rendering of Mary Magdalene washing Christ’s feet. With Christ sporting short blond hair and Mary Magdalene draped in scanty, shiny dress, Gilardi’s scene takes a revered image and morphs it into something tangible for his time. Debra Brehmer even joked that Gilardi could have been inspired by the Ken Doll when fashioning Christ’s appearance.

In transforming the Bible to portray modern culture, Gilardi’s religious works additionally capture the artist’s individual personality. A devoted analyzer and questioner of religion, Gilardi’s works often depict spiritual harmony in the form of natural images: “I Share My Soul,” an oil painting on canvas panel showcases a young man intertwined and interacting with a plethora of animals.

Moreover, diverse in his presentation of spiritual and harmonious images — Gilardi is noted for his work on racial equality as well as love between couples, the basement artist is consistent in his style.

Despite focusing on broad conceptual commentary, Gilardi remains true to his odd-ball, almost caricatured representations from the 1960s to the 1990s. Cheery-eyed yet gaunt, Gilardi’s religious characters virtually jump off the canvas, looking life-like if only in a dreamed-up realm.

Isolated from the rest of the paintings, Gilardi’s essential piece in the Kohler Gallery is “Blood and Flowers,” assumedly a self-portrait which juxtaposes pain with beauty, as a crown of brightly colored leaves and flowers rest upon his head while countless streams of blood rain down upon his face.

Vibrant and bountiful, the works in “Bernard Gilardi: A Private Iconography” are a joy for art lovers and contemplators alike, drenched in modern irony yet toned with precision and a darkly hopeful outlook on the world.