Boise artist Noble Hardesty is only 35, but it seems like he's been around forever. A fixture of the local scene since the mid-1990s, Hardesty has achieved recognition and notoriety against the odds. He has done so with only a high-school level art education, in a city rarely conducive to the aggressive art form and imagery Hardesty has pursued. Yet as an artist of imagination, energy and prodigious output, Hardesty managed to make his mark here. Now he's leaving, moving to Chicago with his wife Jamie, where he will be exposed to a higher-pitched urban scene and an expanded realm of possibilities. Where it will take his art one can only guess, but our loss will likely be his gain.
I'm always bumping into Hardesty's work, and I've come to realize what an integral part of downtown life it has become. His covers and illustrations for BW were only one way the Hardesty worldview wove into our consciousness. How many hundreds of Bar Gernika coasters did we witness him turn into pen-and-ink studies of assorted revelry (or surreptitiously cop for our private collections)? Those boisterous social commentaries captured the lower end of the local night life, forcing us to laugh at ourselves ("been there, done that."). Seeing many of them exhibited together at the "Bus Barn Studios" show in 2002 made me appreciate his knack for caricature and the quick-witted skill with which he captured Boise's vanity, demons and foibles. In this, Hardesty has been our version of William Hogarth, the 18th century British satirist and chronicler of the amoral, gin-soaked side of society. Hardesty's Man's Ruin series will long remain his penultimate work.
Hardesty's artwork appeared with increasing regularity at venues ranging from street events to the Boise Art Museum (in the 1998 Triennial and the Fresh Visions series), at shops like Inkvision, Picture This Frame Shop and Gallery, and at Boise State--not to mention his appearances at the Basement Gallery, Hardesty's home base in recent years and the location of his farewell show. Then there were his public art projects, his participation in BOSCO and his work for the Boise City Arts Commission. For all the sex, drugs and rock n' roll that has inhabited his art, Hardesty is a hometown boy with a sincere commitment to the cultural life of this place.
Hardesty's current exhibit nods goodbye not only to Boise but the Basement Gallery too, as he was recently taken on by J Crist Gallery. On view are both new and old works, offering a glimpse of the changes in his art. In one sense, Hardesty is a Pop artist. Like many of his predecessors in the 1960s, his art emerged from the comic books he voraciously collected as a youth. Yet his work has none of the irony that informed the original Pop movement. Rather, Hardesty is more the self-taught outsider artist, inspired and sustained by such counterculture art/illustration publications as Juxtapoz, celebrating an aesthetic (or anti-aesthetic) that combines graffiti art, tattoo art, biker culture, and the iconography of the street. A graphic art form, it is on the cusp of illustration, but Hardesty's concerns about design and color take it beyond the pictorial. His experimentation with painting on rotary saw blades, doors and other unconventional supports betrays his street sympathies but also breaks new ground in using found materials.
Particularly in the 1990s, I identified Hardesty's art with Boise's local music scene. His work's decadent, edgy demeanor had a strong affinity with the rawness of the music being made here, and it captured the contempt young musicians expressed toward straight, complacent Boise. Hardesty's B.A.R.F. (Boiseans Against the River Festival) T-shirts, which thanked visitors for "turning our city into a toilet," come to mind.
The character of Hardesty's work has inevitably changed. His imagery has mellowed and his colors have softened. The humor, once subversive, is less so. He admits to feeling less confrontational these days, as is reflected in his art at Basement Gallery. Some figurative subjects have gotten a little too cute, his colors a tad sugary and less suited to sharp-toothed saw blades. In contrast, his Torch of the Mystics from 2003, with its thick, Bowie knife ripping through a juicy-red heart, echoes the menacing teeth of the blade it adorns, and vice-versa. His collaborative paintings with Mike Flinn on shaped pieces of masonite, like Creature Feature, are the best of the new work on view, reviving some of Hardesty's past style while suggesting a new direction in his art. Collaboration has been an important part of his output, testifying to his openness to new approaches and the exchange of visual ideas, as well as to his refreshing lack of ego and conceit.
Last year, Boise dealer Jacqueline Crist took some of Hardesty's saw-blade work to Chicago's Intuit Art Fair, which shows outsider art. The response was good and several pieces sold. In Chicago, with its faster pace, ethnic diversity, rich street life and art scene, I suspect he'll find himself right at home. Boise has lost a nice guy and good friend, but for Hardesty's career, it's right.