Monster Mash: The Chicago Imagists’ Irreverent Take on 1960s and ’70s America

At Goldsmiths CCA, the group’s darkly comic grotesqueries reflect an unsettling age  

‘NO JOKING!! DIS IS SERIOUS STUFF, HANDLE WITH HAIR,’ reads a speech bubble spewing, illogically, from the ear-trumpet of a monstrous mish-mash of a cartoon man with arms like twisted innards and bulbous, furry thighs. The drawing is displayed in the basement gallery of Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) in a vitrine that bustles with ’zine-like publications by Chicago’s Hairy Who collective. The image captures, in miniature, the grotesquery, hybridity and irreverence that broadly characterize the Chicago imagists. 

This loose group of artists – which included the members of the Hairy Who, the Nonplussed Some and other collectives – met at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1960s and frequently exhibited together. Encouraged by teachers including Kathleen Blackshear, Whitney Halstead and Ray Yoshida, they rejected the Western art-historical canon and drew instead on a shared melting pot of vernacular references. Sidewalks, thrift shops, folk art, swimming costumes, lino flooring, pinball machines, palm trees, ice picks, wrestling masks – they embraced the junk and joy of the American mid-century. In doing so, they offered a palate-cleansing contrast to the austerity of minimalism and the cool detachment of pop art.

Jim Nutt, He Snort, 1969. Courtesy: © the artist and Roger Broan Study Collection, The School of Art Institute Chicago 

Jim Nutt, He Snort, 1969. Courtesy: © the artist and Roger Broan Study Collection, The School of Art Institute Chicago 

Displayed across the three floors of CCA is a selection of works by 14 imagists, alongside vitrines of ephemera and a programme of three films. Bulging bodies, hallucinatory patterns, globular caricatures and eerie environments throb, pulse, quiver and seethe throughout the gallery, over canvas, Plexiglas, paper and wood. Drawings by Ed Flood, Art Green, Jim Nutt and Karl Wirsum are sketchy and surreal, as if culled from stoners’ sketchbooks. Yet, they glint with evocative allusions to Chicago’s urban texture: huffing factories, lonely street corners, scouring wind. You won’t find many references to the city’s history of racial segregation or the anti-Vietnam War protests that took place there in 1968, but Nutt’s grinning, pustular Officer E Doodit (1968) and spitting, scab-nosed Trooper Snooper (1967), both painted on Plexiglas, offer twisted glimpses of the violence of the American state at home and abroad.

In the imagists’ work, violence and political upheaval are dealt with indirectly, sublimated into aesthetics of exaggeration and monstrosity. The effect is by turns alarming and hilarious, often both at once. Ed Paschke’s 1979 lurid lithograph Hubert, which depicts a po-faced, ageing hippie, prompted me to snort with laughter – partly out of shock. Its protagonist stands against a startling background whose acidic yellow recalls radiation warning signs, evoking the threat of nuclear annihilation. In Gladys Nilsson’s 1970 watercolour More Fowl Beasts, devilish bird-people gambol through an infernal disco. The effect is crazed yet joyful, pulsing with impish energy. Sarah Canright’s shimmering abstract paintings, by contrast, exaggerate (and thereby subvert) what she has called ‘a kind of female imagery’, all pastel hues and hazy edges, billowing fabrics and rippling lines.

Jim Falconer, back cover for Hairy Who (cat-a-log), c. 1968-69. Courtesy: © the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York 

Jim Falconer, back cover for Hairy Who (cat-a-log), c. 1968-69. Courtesy: © the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York 

Inspired by the associative, cut-and-paste ethos that Yoshida encouraged in his students, the works at CCA – which is, fittingly, connected to an art school – are deftly grouped according to formal affinities. In one room, Christina Ramberg’s large 1977 painting Double Hesitation, which mimics corsetry’s painful constriction of women’s bodies by pushing a female form towards cinched abstraction, is echoed by the shrouded statue in Roger Brown’s painting The Girl (1969), with its obvious nod to (or parody of) Giorgio de Chirico’s dreamlike landscapes. Nearby is Barbara Rossi’s 1972 Black Rock Top, its background of satin fabric pinned under Plexiglas. Painted in the centre is a writhing mass of limbs and clothing, a knotty orgy of fabric and flesh. It’s another example of how persuasively this exhibition argues for the imagists’ posterity – not just in the unbridled outlandishness of the works themselves, but as study in communal inspiration, artistic solidarity and self-organization. Some of the imagists’ may, after all, have been joking. But as this retrospective makes clear, dis is serious stuff.

‘How Chicago! Imagists 1960s & 70s’ runs at Goldsmiths CCA until 27 May 2019.

Main image: Roger Brown, poster for Famous Artists from Chicago, 1970. Courtesy: © the artist and Roger Brown Study Collection, the School of Art Institute Chicago; photograph: James Connolly  

Patrick Langley is a writer and critic based in London, UK. He is a contributing editor of The White Review.

Issue 204

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