The Chicago Imagists collective is back, for a few months at least, with 3-D Doings: The Imagist Object in Chicago Art, 1964-1980, at the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery.
If you’ve never heard of them, you’re not alone. This group of 17 artists that blend the weird and the wonderful, has been out of the spotlight for some time now. Emerging in Chicago in 1964, artists like Karl Wirsum, Roger Brown and Suellen Rocca were creating art that was informed by the Surrealist movement as well as pop culture. It was a strange mix then and remains so today, though perhaps it’s more appreciated in this day and age where what was once weird is now mainstream.
3-D Doings pays homage to the movement, with ephemera from the first Imagist exhibitions and works from each artist, and artists who brought the group of 17 together. The core group consisted of just six artists: Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Karl Wirsum, Art Green, Jim Falconer, and Suellen Rocca. They called themselves "Hairy Who.” Over the 15-year period, artists like Roger Brown, Ed Paschke, Christina Ramberg, Barbara Rossi and Ray Yoshida joined them on and off in various exhibitions.
They’re united by this strange style, mixing folk figures with pop art and sculptures that come straight out of a sci-fi novel. Particularly Karl Wirsum’s bionic figures, with playfully patterned legs and arms, clunky-heeled feet and geometric faces. The three figures, each around 6-feet tall with dresses that come down to what might be their knees, hang from the ceiling and sway in an all too lifelike way when the air comes on. Despite their cringe-worthy names, Mary O’Net, Chris Teen and Nurse Worse, they’re stunning.
In another by Wirsum, a chilling black gargoyle figure, with its head tipped back, is holding a glass of something dark. But the gargoyle’s brightly colored bandana and jacket with Gargoyle Gargle Oil, written in funky-typeface across the side, humanize the figure. The piece is done on mirror and wood and standing in front of it the viewer can hardly help but see themselves and others reflected back as well.
Close by to Wirsum’s piece, are three works by another original or core member of the Imagists, Suellen Rocca. Bright yellow paint pops from these three navy faux-leather handbags, called Mm . . ., First Kiss and Ah! Figures, painted in wandering lines, come up to just below the clasps of each bag, one with “Mm” painted on the back of the head, another with what might be teardrops falling down the face.
The wandering line reveals a connection to the artist’s hand, to the sense that these things were created by a human. During the 1960s and 1970s, as pop art was on the rise, that “human hand” element was becoming less popular, especially on the New York art scene. But the Chicago Imagists didn’t let it go, even using it in the objects they collected and remade.
In Police Car Iron, Roger Brown takes what looks like a household iron and paints it into police cars, with figures inside. The way the three “iron cars” are placed within the exhibition space makes it easy to imagine them chasing one another. In Gladys Nilsson’s works, like Wading Tosome, and To of them, the frames are embroidery loops and the canvas reminds one of an abstract and heavily layered cross stitch kit. The loop-frames make the works seem centuries old while the funky-shapes and dull color palette bring it into the modern age.
Both Brown and Nilsson decided to not only remake the familiar but to think about bringing painting into the third dimension. Perhaps the loudest example of this was from Red Grooms, called City of Chicago. Though he wasn’t actually part of the Chicago Imagists, he attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and created this enormous sculptural and mechanical work, blending found objects with painting, sculpture and an element of pop art. It established Grooms as a major artist in 1967, before he began concentrating on a different element of pop art: prints.
City of Chicago, wasn’t made by an Imagist, but it has a separate connection to the movement. Many of the Chicago Imagist artists star in Grooms’ short film, Tappy Toes, which is also featured in the exhibition. The City of Chicago installation, a “sculpto-pictorama” according to one brochure, takes center stage in Tappy Toes as well.
On Thursday, Oct. 25, and Friday, Oct. 26, there will be a “3-D Doings Symposium,” featuring gallery talks and a panel discussion featuring artist Art Green. Other Imagist artists like Gladys Nilsson, Suellen Rocca, Sarah Canright, Lorri Gunn, Mimi Gross and Philip Hanson will be giving gallery talks.
– Indiana Nash