Born Detroit 1954 / BFA, MFA, Wayne State University / Lives in Highland Park, Michigan
Over a career spanning five decades, painter Saffell Gardner has created a large body of work that combines a consistent, and highly personal, artistic vocabulary with a relentless desire to experiment through new materials and techniques. Working at the edge of the tradition belatedly recognized as Afro-Futurism, and inhabiting a creative state that allows him to move easily between abstraction and symbolism, Gardner has used his practice to extensively explore, and creatively re-imagine, the past, present, and future of the African diaspora in America.
In Gardner’s work, abstract composition is both an end in itself, and the “armature” on which further meaning can emerge from the synchronicity between unconsciously recurring forms, and corresponding elements in the experience of the African diaspora. For example, sometime in the 1970s a distinctive “bow tie” like form started to repeatedly appear in Gardner’s work – as with Cosmic Xango. Eventually, he had the epiphany that this was the double sided thunder-ax of Xango, the Yoruba Orisha of thunder and lightning, an eternal moral presence dispensing justice from the skies. An important reference point for Gardner, and others of his generation, is Robert Farris Thompson’s 1984 book Flash of the Spirit, with its major thesis that more African visual culture and philosophy crossed the Atlantic to the Americas than is generally recognized.
In 1985 Gardner visited Senegal, a short but powerful trip during which he visited Goree Island – a memorial to the embarkation point where slaves were loaded, through the “door of no return,” onto ships for the middle passage across the Atlantic. Some time earlier, he had produced an intense series of work with repeated visual and named references to the door, e.g. Starry Door and Spanish Red. As a result of the visit, he started to use the image of the door as a more specific vehicle for re-imagining the mental state of someone leaving their home continent and heading for a life of slavery in an unknown place. This experience of the middle passage has been a consistent concern of Gardner’s, and is often reflected through references to the ship, sails, the elements, and the ocean. The unsettling sense of the small boat at the mercy of the elements, heading to an unknown destination, is captured particularly effectively in 1992’s Thunder Skies, which is part of an extended series of “totems,” identified by their elongated aspect ratio. Often accompanying the boat and the ocean is a characteristic “saw tooth” motif which can alternatively imply shark’s teeth and/or the vicissitudes of life’s ups and downs. The shark’s teeth reference the legend that embarking slave ships were surrounded by sharks and that Africans would rather jump into the ocean than face a life of slavery. Visually quite similar to the shark’s teeth is the image of the crown, as seen for instance in Lost Kings. The crown talks to the loss of personal identity that was inherent in the nature of slavery and the middle passage, and hence the corresponding possibility that any African-American might be descended from nobility. What is clear overall is that in the years following the trip to Senegal, Gardner’s works became more ambitious in terms of scale, and show him becoming increasingly confident in his personal symbolic vocabulary.
Another consistent influence on Gardner’s work has been music from the outer limits of the American Jazz tradition. In the early 1980s he attended a performance by the legendary Art Ensemble of Chicago, and their ability to combine ritual, visual spectacle and multi-instrumental avant-garde jazz into a transcendental experience had a powerful impact. Sun Ra, the bandleader from Saturn who Gardner met briefly met in the 1970s, and whose music he listens to on a regular basis, is another important figure. Paintings with names like Things are Orange on Saturn, Astro Black (named for a Sun Ra tune), and Mystical Afronauts imply a similar extraterrestrial dimension to the time-space continuum that Gardner is focused on. This is reflected visually through the inclusion of large sweeping arcs and spheres, creating an expansive feeling which starts to imply planetary orbits and the exploration of a larger and boundless cosmology.
Copyright 2014/2015 Essay’d
Steve Panton, Aug 2014/October 2015