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The Shape of Content: Thomas Gardner and Bill Russell

Stanford Art Spaces is pleased to announce July-August 2015 solo shows by two Bay Area abstract painters: La Vie Moderne by Thomas Gardner of San Francisco; and Syncopations by Bill Russell of San Rafael.

In recent years, art discourse has held that individual expression is impossible, since personality itself is culturally determined; that style is merely a hodgepodge of marketing gimmicks; and that art’s value lies in expressing the unpleasant truth that art is a fraud. This iconoclastic, anti-art position is categorically rejected by those who see art as a cultural repository worth preserving—not a tradition to be abandoned in favor of shallow novelty. The social satirist Ben Shahn wrote that “Style is the shape of content,” meaning that the form that art takes embodies its meaning—and meaning can be purely visual, rather than in the service of ideology, as in abstraction. Thomas Gardner and Russell are artists who draw on the modernist masters—just as the modernist masters drew on their traditional predecessors—in order to create, at a modest scale, in the traditional rectangular format, works of emotion, power and beauty: small worlds, inclusive and transformative, eschewing selfie razzle-dazzle, that continue the millennia-long adventure of art.

Gardner, who moved to San Francisco from the East Coast, writes:

“My work explores … the theoretical limits of the mind. What starts out as contemplation soon becomes corroded into a tragedy of defeat, leaving only a sense of nihilism and the unlikelihood of a new understanding. As shimmering derivatives become transformed through frantic and repetitive practice, the viewer is left with a hymn to the fetid possibilities of our existence.

But seriously:

I do believe that the act of seeing can lead to a form of representation as something other than simple unobstructed physical perception. I think Corot’s statement about seeing is pertinent (and amusing): “I will tell you my idea of a portrait. Let a person walk through an open door about 10 feet from you; let him pass and repass a few times; then, if after he has gone, you can paint the image which he has left in your brain, you will paint a portrait. If you sit down before him, you begin to count buttons.”

Corot and visual memory are never cited by online Artist Statement Generators like, of course. Gardner’s abstractions, with their perfect yet surprising resolutions of form and color, testify to a long apprenticeship in painting that ranges from plein-air landscapes to iPhone drawings (which David Hockney, everyone knows, has been exploring)—neither of which is represented here, but only for lack of space and thematic continuity. The presence of artistic DNA from Léger, Klee, Picasso and other School of Paris masters in Gardner’s diverse work—hence, the title, La Vie Moderne, modern life, a reference to Manet, Impressionism, and color abstraction—is not due to a lack of originality, but, rather, a deep appreciation of the great work of the past. Look at such works as the six iterations of “Composition with Red and Yellow,” in casein on board; or the five iterations of “Wellfleet,” in gouache on paper; or the “Case Study “ or “Plane Arrangement” series in oil on canvas; all sophisticated reworkings of Synthetic Cubism. Look as intently and voraciously as Gorky did, during his long absorption with and of Picasso (“If Picasso drips, I drip.”). Look with the long view in mind, and these paintings hold their own even with such distinguished antecedents. They would grace the collection of any modern art museum in the world.

If Cubism is the primary stimulus behind Gardner’s work, at least the works in the current show, abstract expressionism with its pure, painterly improvisations of form and color is the force behind the powerful work of Bill Russell. A former illustrator for The San Francisco Chronicle. Russell often employs a monochrome palette, with bold black and white shapes set off by the brown-tan grain of his unpainted birch plywood and, in his collages, brighter color notes from the printed elements. He writes:

“I’m a painter, illustrator, journalist, teacher and web designer. In my work life, I’m interested in understanding the notion of what is public art and what is private art. As a commercial artist, my responsibility is to be effective in my communications with the viewer. Although the world of fine art has its own set of constraints, it’s a place where I feel free to let go, be intuitive and express in a personal way. I want my paintings to look and feel unencumbered and joyous. I listen to the music of Miles Davis to fire that feeling.

The imagery in my abstract expressionist collage paintings is both biomorphic and infinite. Finding shapes, colors and points-of-view is an internal process. I simply begin by applying acrylic paints and collage to paper, canvas or panel. I predetermine nothing. The work’s content often references cultural artifacts and Pop imagery and recently the human figure. I’ve developed a personal and modern visual vocabulary with a nod to post-war America Abstract Expressionist painting.”

Jazz, of course, was the music of the Abstract Expressionist era, sharing with that painting style the conviction that emotional and artistic truth arises from improvisation, from the unconscious, channeled through disciplined artistic/musical talent; imagination and impulse are concretized, and fixed, but ‘replayable.’ Russell’s works, with their intuitive orbs and arabesques of black enamel paint, resemble musical scores set free from their staves, hence the title, Syncopations. Collaged printed elements assimilate bits of the real world, or at least references and metonyms, into the frozen music of the pictorial architecture. Works like “Still Life,” “Succulent,” “ClaudiusClear” and “Urban Garden,” with their exuberant shapes and dynamic rhythms, belong to the lyrical tradition of Matisse’s cutouts and Stuart Davis’s semi-abstract oil paintings. Biomorphic surrealism, as Russell mentions, is also a source; look at the starbursts, flowers, eyes, flames, and seedpod forms, as well as the typographic elements, hinting at words, sound, and poetry, and Miro comes to mind, as well as such non-surrealists as Rauschenberg and Motherwell. Russell’s lyricism is generally playful, but it has a darker side, too, mixing myth, history and politics, here represented by his two-panel homage to Picasso’s Spanish civil war masterpiece, “Guernica”: “Bull Diptych—A Spectacle of Minds” and “Bull Diptych—Ariadne’s String.”

Both shows continue until September 18.

There will be a reception for the artists on Thursday, July 30, from 4:30 to 7:00pm, in The Center for Integrated Systems in the Paul G. Allen Building. The exhibition continues in the adjacent David W. Packard Electrical Engineering Building. which will also be open. Please see Stanford Art Spaces for maps and directions. Parking at all university lots and structures is free after 4:00. Several venues for art are only a short walk from Stanford Art Spaces. Stanford Arts map The Cantor Arts Center and the newly opened Anderson Collection, next door, are only one block north of SAS; both are open until 8:00 pm on Thursday nights, with free admission.

Stanford Art Spaces is an exhibition program serving the Paul G. Allen Building, housing the Center for Integrated Systems, the program’s longtime sponsor, and the David W. Packard Electrical Engineering Building, with smaller venues located throughout campus. All are open during normal weekday business hours. For further information, or to arrange a tour, please contact Curator DeWitt Cheng at 650-725-3622 or