At the State Law Library, Painter Ben Gardner’s Brush With History

A few years ago the Des Moines artist Ben Gardner traveled to Cyprus with a group of students from Drake University, where he teaches art and design. On the island’s north side, which is governed by Turkey, they toured an old church that had been converted into a mosque. They saw Gothic cathedrals that had fallen into disrepair.

“They were really just the bones of cathedrals,” Gardner said.

But for the artist, they were also building blocks for new ideas.

“They weren’t just relics from a defeated culture but symbols of multiple cultures. I started to think about them in a broader context,” he said. “I don’t know if I can fully express how it revolutionized my thinking.”

Some of Gardner’s thoughts on the subject are on display this summer in “Art at the Library,” the Iowa Arts Council’s ongoing exhibition series at the State Law Library in the State Capitol. It’s a fitting site for paintings that were inspired by history and, as Gardner put it, the “spaces that humans occupy and fill with meaning — and how those spaces rise and fall over time.”

“I would always show my work in libraries if I could,” he said.

Besides his trip to Turkey, Gardner has also been inspired by Peru, where he explored Machu Picchu, and Indonesia, where he studied the world’s largest Buddhist temple, called Borobudur. These sites, like the Cypriot cathedrals, have taken on extra significance with the passage of time.

Lately, he’s been interested in a 1962 film called “La Jetee (The Jetty),” a post-apocalyptic story about a group of survivors who time-travel to save parts of the past for the future. The heroes stash memories in tunnels beneath the ruins of Paris.

State Law Library visitors may not discern all of Gardner’s messages and themes in the colorful paintings, which are mostly abstract, but the artist brushed in a few clues for those who choose to pursue them.

Ben Gardner’s “Audiohedron,” acrylic on canvas, 2018.

Patterns fade in and out, like the rise and fall of empires. Colors blend or collide. In one work, a striped face calls to mind the traditional African masks that inspired Picasso in the early 1900s.

Ben Gardner’s “Saint of Sorrows,” acrylic on canvas, 2016.

In a recent blog Gardner wrote for “Civilizations,” a new PBS series that explores how art and creativity have shaped the human experience, he wonders where to draw the boundaries between inspiration and appropriation.

Were Picasso’s African-style paintings a tribute or a theft? When one culture bumps into another, how do their ideas mix or clash?

“I will never stop marveling at the layers and complexity of history,” Gardner said.

Michael Morain, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs