Jim Nutt’s paintings of women are almost as elusive as the average unicorn. Since 1990, the American artist has operated with exquisite patience, typically producing a canvas a year of various imaginary ladies who look like they should be haunting a cocktail party thrown to celebrate the premier of Mildred Pierce (1945).
Four ghostly sketches (all Untitled, 2016) and four radiant new paintings from this obsessive project inaugurate Cabinet’s new Vauxhall home – a wonky, twelve-sided, five storey building that deserves an essay to itself. (Artists including Lucy McKenzie and Marc Camille-Chaimowicz furnished many of the architectural and interior details.) The new works prove Nutt’s enduring gift for snaring these mysterious creatures while simultaneously disclosing the peculiar wonders to be found when a painter attempts to capture the ‘same’ thing again and again.
If Nutt has discovered a formula for his portraits – mixing together the Hollywood headshots with cubist brides and the unsettling idiosyncrasies of figures by Lucas Cranach the Elder – every picture contains its own cornucopia of oddities. The dames eyeball any visitor with looks ranging from depressive indifference (the damsel in Bloom, 2014, with her oozing flower for an ear) to vulpine cunning (the vixen from Tweak, 2012, is obviously concocting a murder plot).
Strange details abound: the woman in Trim (2010) has fantastic eyebrows evocative of electrified mink pelts and her nose is covered with a purple mould that could have been stolen from Joan Mirò’s cupboard. But Nutt’s touch is so cool that these embellishments don’t come off as wacky so much as sinister or inscrutable, like bad-dream versions of the femme fatale portraits seen in film noir. That feeling is only intensified by the sketches, in which the subjects look as stern as Aztec totems: one has a dead fish’s eye in her head, another has a philtrum as jagged as a diamond.
Riotously messing with the female form has been Nutt’s occupation since the heyday of Agent Orange and LSD. In the mid-1960s, he produced visions such as Miss T. Garmint (She Pants a Lot) (1966–67), a psychedelic tribute to the film Attack of the 50-Foot Woman (1958) in which the heroine’s body consists of pink lava-lamp goo covered by a proto-Beavis pompadour. Nutt’s cartoon delirium phase suggested a tumble through the mind of somebody at once horny and freaking out. Beguiling continuities remain 40 years later: Nutt still paints flesh with the texture of melted wax and maintains his experimental fascination with the ways of manipulating a face.)
There is, of course, a rich history of gentlemen artists dedicating themselves with monogamous zeal to the task of painting women: consider, for instance, the oeuvres of Balthus, Amedeo Modigliani and Brian Calvin. For Nutt, along with all those other boys, the concept of ‘girl’ provides a luscious space to test the subtleties of colour, light and texture, or to brood on the history of his medium. Certain painters like oddball elegance – Calvin explores the balloon droopiness of a tired girl’s mouth; Modigliani uses glyphs to create his beautiful faces – and work it to attain a special kind of melancholy. Nutt belongs in this tradition and might be its most enigmatic practitioner (no accident that all his women appear with their lips sealed), making pictures which are spacey, ominous and kind of sad. That hair is one of things he does best (the hairdo in one sketch here resembles a raven seen in silhouette) is a clue to how immaculately arranged the whole production is, like that moment in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939) where the sleuth studies a sleeping broad and notes her tresses ‘spread out on the pillow as if by a careful and artificial hand’.