Mona Lisa smoking a cigarette. A bald woman with flowers growing out of her head. A running back with a hole in his head, carrying a man's head instead of a football.
"My mother wouldn't allow him to put it on the wall in the house," laughs Madison resident Dee Kuech, daughter of late Milwaukee artist Bernard Gilardi. She's the first to admit her father's paintings are anything but conventional. "He kept them in the basement and rarely showed them to anybody."
Gilardi's shockingly vibrant, surrealist paintings feature masterful use of color, wild caricatures and subjects - nudes, homosexuality, race relations, religious satire, Wisconsin icons - that veer from controversial to bizarre. It was not the sort of art that would be easy to show friends or neighbors, especially for a devout Catholic family in the Midwest in the 1960s and 1970s.
Gilardi himself made little effort to gain notice for his art. "He thought people wouldn't understand it," says Kuech.
Three years after his death, he couldn't have been more wrong. Gilardi's paintings were exhibited in Milwaukee in 2010, and dozens were snapped up by top art collectors. Subsequent exhibits in Chicago yielded similar excitement, and now his work has moved to a bigger stage. "Bernard Gilardi: Into the Light" runs through March 25 at the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend.
"It's like his work is being validated," says Kuech. "Which even the more skeptical members of our family are starting to be very proud of."
Kuech demurs when given credit, but her persistence in writing letters to art galleries is what got her father's work noticed. She had no choice. When he died, Gilardi left behind over 400 paintings. "We didn't know what to do with them," she says.
The art world did. To expert eyes, Gilardi's influences were evident, including Pop Art and Chicago Imagism. His jarring originality stood out. His humorous yet often freakish visuals, rather than being a turn-off, had powerfully magnetic appeal.
"My dad would have been very proud," Kuech says of this turn of events. "Very surprised too, I think. A part of him knew his work was special, that it might become famous someday. But he also knew it would not be in his lifetime. He was at peace with that."
One of the paintings in the West Bend show is a beautiful portrait of a silver-skinned man, flowers for hair, covered with Gilardi's signature glowing dots, radiating spirituality. Another is a blond enveloped in her own pipe smoke, exhaling through the nose. It's a strange alchemy of disparate ideas. Kuech readily agrees it will not be everyone's cup of tea.
"But that's art, and that's the way he would have wanted it," she says. "He was intentionally provocative with what he painted. He wanted people to react. He would have been disappointed if someone stared blankly at his paintings, then just walked away, unaffected."