Tim Gardner’s recent exhibition at the National Gallery, New Works, is remarkable in its appeal. Our interest is generated from the first encounter with the wonder we feel stumbling upon paintings more suited to the mantelpiece of a frat house than the wall of the National Gallery.

Gardner can paint tranquil idealism with the best of them. Yet his work is fast-talking and immediately engaging. All his paintings that contain people, feature two lips parted, as if to suggest that the characters in his pictures are speaking to us, that they have a story to tell, a point to make. Tellingly, this is not the case for the artist’s own self portrait, where Gardner paints himself close-lipped. Gardner offers us few easy resolutions to the dialogue sparked by his art.

What is all the fuss about Gardner? How do we explain his meteoric rise to fame? Gardner’s style takes its roots from photography – improvisational photography. The best example of which is Yousuf Karsh’s photograph of Winston Churchill. Karsh without warning yanked the cigar from Churchill’s mouth – whipped the carpet from underneath our feet – and just snapped his shutter. The natural emotion captured is memorable. But there is more to Gardner’s work.

There are those who have and will inevitably mistake Gardner’s work for photography. Its exactitude coupled with the very realness of his scenes command our attention. I would argue against the description of Gardner as a talented street performer with an eye for replication. Gardner is known to work from photographs, to take photographs of subjects, often friends or family, and then work from composite shots to create the overall heightened sense of grace of movement. It’s true there is an angelic quality to his art: a greater act of reclaiming innocence and preservation of fleeting movements that is important. Gardner’s tools as well as his craft reflect this kinship to photography. The use of impermanent materials, pastels and watercolours, is an obtrusive element in his work. They are the tools of an artist, who aims to transcend conventions of genre, but, also, more importantly, of class. Distinctions that he says have marooned art: the growing divides between highbrow/lowbrow; working-class/noble art; auteur, aesthete/hobbyist.

In some ways, we may be attracted to Gardner’s work because it so closely resembles a “childish” “paint-by-numbers” exercise; but the characters displayed in his dramas are symbolic figures. We may see Hemingway in the portrait of his father, Jim in the Sun, and imbue a volcanic-like importance to Two Men on a Bus (although that is not precisely configured). This is the kind of artist Gardner is. Nick on the Prairie reminds me of the movie Boys Don’t Cry in its “wind at my back” searching-ness, the saintliness of the pose and its hyper-masculinity.

Suddenly the landscapes of these pictures do not seem so vast, they become something earthy or organic, even accessible to the touch.

Jason Ranon Uri Rotstein