Char Gardner hoped the “22 Others” project would get her out of the isolation of the artist’s studio. It got her a lot farther than that.
The impressive yield of sculptures, collages, constructions, handmade art books, and a video that fills two floors at the Ruthless Grip art space on U Street NW represents the answer to a Jungian query: What would happen if Gardner, instead of initiating works herself, acted on the suggestions of 22 other people? Back in 1991, she imagined a group divided evenly between men and women, and drawn mostly from Washington artists she admired but had never met.
But first she had to get over the hurdle of her own temperament. “I always thought this was a really cool idea,” she says, “but I also thought I was too shy to do it.” Still, she plunged in. “My hands were shaking and my voice trembled when I called somebody,” she remembers. To her shocked relief, everyone she asked agreed to take part, and now Gardner says that the past five years of artistic collaboration have been a transforming experience. Certainly today the ebullient redheaded artist seems anything but timid.
The suggestions, all reprinted in the show’s catalog, ranged from the straightforward (Joyce Scott’s “Bind something; cut it open”) to the pretentious (gallery owners Sally Troyer and Sandy Fitzpatrick name drop Barthes and Yeats in a prompt that boils down to “Do something with an old photograph”). Henry Taylor wins the above and beyond award for his stanza poem, “For Char Gardner, Preparing to Work Her Art,” later included in his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Understanding Fiction.
The project turned out to be not only transforming but transporting: Gardner read Cassandra Kabler’s suggestion to “find a [place] that feels charged with energy…” as an invitation to explore Norway, her parental homeland. It wasn’t a sentimental trip. “All of my family here are either dead or despicable,” she says mordantly. Instead, searching for “something healthy and whole,” she brought back mementos of a great great grandmother, still celebrated as a folk healer, whose memory turns up in the construction Medisinskrin (Medicine Box). (One could guess that the several works featuring a ripping horn or claw motif reflect more up to date familial experiences.)
Gardner’s trajectory out of the studio continues. She has just returned from two months in Antarctica doing her “day job” as a film producer; she and her husband are shooting a segment for PBS’s Nova. Gardner is thinking of moving into the creative end of film, too. “I can’t imagine it,” she says. “But then you never can ’til you do it.”John DeVault
“22 Others” runs at Ruthless Grip Art Project, 1508 U St. NW to March 2.