A Celebration of All Things Cultural, Artistic, and Entertaining in Madison
Sep 9, 2011
02:48 PM

Meet in the Middle

Meet in the Middle

In the 1960s, Pop art was generating excitement in New York and Los Angeles. But tucked in the country’s center, in gritty, windswept Chicago, something unique was taking root. A group of young artists began making colorful, expressive and stylized work—different from what was appearing on the coasts—and exhibiting it together in an alternative art space.

The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art highlights these artists in Chicago Imagists, a new exhibition opening September 11 and running through January 15. The show features more than seventy-five paintings, prints, collages, sculptures and other works, many of which come from a large gift from local collector Bill McClain. The nearly hundred works from McClain makes MMoCA’s collection of Imagists art one of the most impressive in the world. “Suddenly, we’re Imagists central,” says director Stephen Fleischman.

The works make for a vibrant, dynamic show, and MMoCA’s treatment of the art is thorough, thoughtful and respectful of the attention the Imagists deserve—but haven’t yet received fully.

“These artists are all well known in Chicago but never got the attention that their East- and West-coast brethren did,” Fleischman says.

“We hope this generates new interest,” adds Richard Axsom, curator of collections.

The exhibition opens with an anteroom devoted to the work of Ray Yoshida, a teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where many of the Imagists studied, and an influential mentor. He encouraged the artists to explore the Art Institute’s collections as well as primitive art and popular culture as sources of inspiration.

The rest of the show is presented in a vague chronology—in three colorful sections indicated by walls painted in hues of banana, marmalade and “loosey-goosey blue.” Visitors should immediately notice a sense of fun, one that stems from the artists themselves (and seems to extend through the museum staff who organized the exhibition). Pop artists in New York and Los Angeles were at least a generation than the Imagists, who were college-aged artists and often hung out together.

“These were kids in their twenties,” Axsom says. “The Imagists were youth culture.”

In 1966, artists Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Karl Wirsum, James Falconer, Art Green and Suellen Rocca held their first group exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center as Hairy Who, an inside joke-turned-title. In the years to come, they—along with Rober Brown, Sarah Canright, Ed Flood, Philip Hanson, Ed Paschke, Christina Ramberg and Barbara Rossi—would exhibit under such quirky names as Nonplussed Some and False Image.

While Pop artists on the coasts often focused on consumer goods and slick mass marketing, the Imagists drew inspiration from their setting: comic books, bar signs, tattoos, collectibles and other elements of Chicago street culture. They created art that’s vivid, fantastical, personal and expressive and incorporates elements of Surrealism—a movement particularly popular in Chicago in the ’60s.

The group’s playfulness extended into the titles of some of their work. “They’re groaner puns but great fun,” Axsom says, pointing to Nutt’s painting of “Rosie Common.” A male figure with a large nose looks over his shoulder, looking tough to perhaps compensate for having a common girl’s name. Yet, “Rosie” is also a traditional Irish male nickname and Rosecommon is a county in Ireland—one that had a large contingent in Chicago at the time.

But don’t confuse the Imagists’ sense of humor with a lack of artistic seriousness. “They were consummate artists in terms of craftsmanship,” Axsom says. “They were extremely fine painters. You sense that they really knew their craft.”

While the first portion of the exhibition focuses on the Imagists’ Hyde Park years, with Hanson’s surrealistic “Mezzanine” and Nilsson’s watercolor of faces called “Quartets Recording,” the show moves on to feature a series of electrically hued works by Paschke from the 1980s, as well as a sculpture and painting by Brown from the '70s that reveal an aesthetic interest in comic books. In his “Sudden Avalanche,” silhouettes show men and women carrying on inside tall buildings, ignorant to the avalanche wreaking havoc outside their windows.

The final part of the exhibition showcases recent work by the artists, offering a sense of their evolution. Four “portraits” by Nutt are exquisitely detailed, while a large piece by Nilsson proves her reputation as “one of the finest living watercolor artists in America,” says Axsom.

This is not an exhibition to visit once. It’s a show to return to as often as one is able, to allow impressions to change and grow and new details to emerge with each viewing.

Those looking for the richest Chicago Imagists experience should attend the opening event on September 10, 6:30–9:30 p.m. Six or seven of the artists are expected to attend, with Green and Nilsson giving a talk at 7 p.m.

 Also opening is Chicago School: Imagists in Context, running through December 30, which features works from MMoCA’s permanent collection to explore the artistic styles that emerged after World War II in Chicago.

And don’t miss Chicago Imagists, a new book published by the museum that’s sure to be the authority on this spirited group of artists. Presenting the context of the Imagists through a series of thematic essays and full-color plates, it’s a stunning extension of an exhibition that’s not to be missed.

Chicago Imagists runs through January 15 at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. For more information, visit mmoca.org.

Photos—from top to bottom by Gladys Nilsson, Philip Hanson, Roger Brown and Ed Paschke—courtesy of MMoCA.

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About This Blog

As managing editor at Madison Magazine, I'm also an unabashed arts enthusiast. Paintings, plays, music, movies—I'm intrigued by all forms of creative expression. I enjoy talking with artists and sharing their insights, challenges, inspirations and latest endeavors. Check in regularly for details on events, previews and reviews, artist interviews and more! 

– Katie Vaughn
Follow Katie on Twitter @katiemv

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