Critics’ Picks

Suellen Rocca, Night Light, 1968, oil on canvas with fabric frame, 51 x 41".

Suellen Rocca, Night Light, 1968, oil on canvas with fabric frame, 51 x 41".


“Private Eye: The Imagist Impulse in Chicago Art”

4000 Michigan Road
May 21–December 5, 2021

In Roger Brown’s painting Chicago Hit by the Bomb, 1985, three skyscrapers spewing smoke and flames from their torn-open roofs hover above a low row of one-story storefronts; within, silhouetted figures pantomime blandly exasperated gestures. Nothing makes sense, the apocalyptic elements nullified by the overall mundanity of the scene. In Suellen Rocca’s canvas Night Light, 1968, a vignette within a vignette, two puttylike femme forms flank the work’s edges. Inside of them, tiny acts of copulation, ejaculation, and digital stimulation unfold. Above the humanoid shapes, a small curtain parts to reveal a fleshy table lamp, while below a kinky froth of tiny cartoon limbs nudge and prod one another. It’s domestic and fantastic, sexy and stupid—a kind of psychosexual nonsense that’s also precisely the mess of one’s interior world.

The persistent eccentricity of Chicago Imagism has by this point, thankfully, received numerous long-overdue reappraisals while continuing to defy easy assimilation into the mainstream canon. The gang’s all here and then some in this exhibition, which features more than one hundred objects by forty-six artists, some of whom composed the core group (such as Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, and Rocca), and others of whom have been identified as their predecessors and/or legacy bearers (including Don Baum, Diane Simpson, and Joseph Yoakum). As the show is drawn entirely from a private collection, it privileges the idiosyncratic visual pleasure of this work—which is abundant, exhilarating—inviting anyone to revel in whatever captures their eye rather than get caught up in the much-fussed-over story and its constituent parts.

I found myself gravitating toward pieces that epitomized the Imagists’ lust for the rebarbative and recherché, such as the exhibition’s namesake, Private Eye, 1965, a gleefully sinister painting of a pustule-ridden detective by Karl Wirsum. The figures in many of the other works on display—Christina Ramberg’s corseted torsos, Robert Lostutter’s roped-up bodies—appear trapped by both the paranoiac menace of the authorities and the the self-imposed rituals of life. The Imagists’ output, while stubbornly “wrong” by most of the terms set out by postwar art, is capaciously right in reflecting our finely wrought neuroses, perverse absurdities, and norms that are anything but. Long live the weirdos.