TAKING TWISTER TO THE MAT

By Adrianne Brune for The Hartford Courant

January 5 2006

Stamford artist Sandy Garnett can't seem to settle on an artistic theme. The spatial abstraction of Piet Mondrian appeals to him. So does the pop art movement of the '60s and '70s, and it influenced the self-taught artist early in his career. He likes Botticelli's classic nudes. Celestial Chagall-like figures sometimes dance across Garnett's canvases as well.

But two themes have remained constant in Garnett's repertoire - women and geometry. Both figure prominently in his latest, um, body of work, the Twister series.

Simply put, Twister is a collection depicting several naked women bent around each other in all sorts of compromising positions on the life-size, vinyl game board that has provided hours of less scandalous entertainment.

Some might say that these works represent nothing more than a red-blooded American male's adolescent fantasy. Garnett says they are mistaken.

"There are some people, I'm sure, who will get a quick laugh because they think it's titillating, that it gives off a perception of overt sexuality," Garnett said in his Norwalk studio, where two women - one right-foot-blue, left-foot-red; the other right-foot-yellow, left-foot-red - gaze defiantly from his latest canvas. "I'm interested in the layers of visual experience. I like the women in the space, the color composition, the horizontal grid."

Before Twister, Garnett, a boyish-looking, rumpled 35-year-old, has been best known for his "fingerprint totems," life-size three-dimensional sculptures of his hands that will forever discourage the artist from committing a crime. His prints have caught the eye of Manhattan collectors. Garnett showed his prints at the Rebecca Hossack Gallery last summer and garnered critical acclaim.

Garnett has also enjoyed a modest amount of success with his other paintings and installations - the self-taught painter works on five pieces simultaneously - the nudes, DaVinci-esque bronzes and the occasional abstract impressionist fusion canvas depicting inspiration from all his influences.

The series that could put Garnett further into the New York art game, however, is Twister. His Twister II, a softer-core version of the stark, photo-realistic paintings, sold recently to a New York collector. Though he remains relatively reticent about the series' prospects, he hinted at the possibility of a Twister show sometime this year. "I have six or seven currently in the works and about 15 in mind," Garnett said.

The paintings, while certainly provocative in their own right - Garnett's subjects sometimes draw in the viewer with an inviting gaze, though they sometimes push the audience out with a curious air of insolence - also invite his audience to ponder the inspiration behind them: A legendary Williamsburg party? A challenge to the very flexible ballerinas he often uses as models? The desire to create an unusual homage to Milton Bradley, the maker of Twister? The answer is none of the above. Almost since Garnett started painting, he has consistently sought new ways to paint the nude, even turning the discriminating eye on the shapes of his own body. Garnett's previous studies don't approach women in the conventional full frontal, prostrate, virginal or vamp angles. Rather, Garnett will capture the body from above, looking downward at a sideways perspective, so its curves are easily delineated. Or he will kneel below and paint from behind, gazing upward - again, trying to capture the un-posed, unexpected beauty and sexuality of the natural figure.

To Garnett, Twister represents the evolution of this exploration. Using the game, he can not only follow the twisty, unmapped lines of humanity but also contrast that with the clean, straight man-made grid. Pop art meets Renaissance classicism.

"I love the game of chess - the strategy of it and the figures on the board," Garnett said. "When I was painting this, I was thinking of chess. In the beginning, we tried just playing the game randomly. But after a while, the models started to mesh themselves together without the game element. And we created an interesting personal interaction."

Though his work escapes classification - and he refuses to stick to a defining practice, such as Picasso to Cubism or Magritte to Surrealism - Garnett says he is driven to "come into my own and create work that is original enough to hold up over time." In other words, Garnett wants a legacy, and he sees a way in doing so by not necessarily carving out a niche to call his own.

Born in Virginia and raised in both London and Darien, Garnett started painting during a year off from St. Lawrence University in Upstate New York. Looking for an identity, he started to see something of others in fingerprints - fingerprints on water glasses, fingerprints on windows, fingerprints on mirrors. Then he remembered the uniqueness of each human mark and started painting his own.

"I am a self-described first-generation reconstructionist," he said. "My goal is to reconstruct the art world that was deconstructed by the last few movements."

So it may seem ironic that he first took the Warhol approach - one of the founding fathers of deconstruction - by painting fingerprints, silk-screening the same print in four different juxtapositions, colors and backgrounds. Then he added his own touch to the world-renowned Betsy Ross piece by substituting white fingerprints of fifty friends for the stars on the American flag. Soon, a black-and-white from the police station wasn't enough for Garnett's fans, and he started receiving commissions for personalized fingerprint paintings, including rock star David Bowie's on a cow-parade sculpture. In 2003, Garnett held a "Fingerprint Project" retrospective at the Discovery Museum in Bridgeport.

"We all know we can be identified by our fingerprint, but the print must be magnified for us to notice its unique patterns and design," Wendy Kelley, curator of the Discovery Museum, said at the time. In Garnett's work, "we are compelled to notice things we have not seen before."

At the same time, Garnett wanted to school himself in the traditional method of painting - the way the masters learned - by painting nudes. Over the years, he has painted dozens and dozens of them and has gone even further in his study by drawing nude silhouettes three-dimensionally, then casting small bronzes from those studies and turning them into hanging icicle-like ornaments - another current project.

"Teaching yourself how to paint and sculpt is complete and utter torture; it's like ripping your soul out every day and beginning again the next morning," he said. "But as I got more fluent, the less time I spent actually painting and the more time I spent looking and gaining perspective."

Through it all, Garnett, though not represented by a gallery or an agent, has managed not only to stay afloat financially but also maintain a relatively comfortable living. Instead of starting out in New York, where he "would only be able to paint 15 to 20 hours a week in order to maintain a job," he bought a studio in the comparatively cheaper city of Norwalk, where he can paint 50 to 60 hours a week.

He has developed a successful website - sandygarnett.com - where collectors can order his work directly. Over the summer, Garnett signed his 780th painting, 350 of which he has sold to the likes of General Motors, PepsiCo and his alma mater, St. Lawrence.

"With each of my bodies of work, I want to make something I've never seen before," Garnett said. "But I also want to build bridges between the movements. To do that, you must be versed in a number of genres." Taking Twister To The Mat A Stamford Artist's Right-Foot-Blue, Left-Foot-Red Naked Ladies Are Causing Double Takes

By ADRIAN BRUNE SPECIAL TO THE COURANT

 
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