various locations

“The 70th Annual Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture by Artists of Chicago and Vicinity” was on view at the Art Institute of Chicago during March. The 75 pieces in the show covered the work of artists in this region in breadth if not in depth and it should be said at the outset that the show contains the highest percentage of good pieces of any of these annuals in recent years. Big omnibus exhibitions of this sort are a questionable way of evaluating a particular segment of work, but both tradition and the considerable amount of prize money (thought by some to be anomalous and anachronistic in itself) work against a change.

The exhibition this year achieved an unexpected notoriety with the injection of the issue of censorship. The jury, composed of Lawrence Alloway, Walter Hopps and James Speyer, accepted a painting entitled Events by Leanne Shreves and the jury further awarded the painting one of the substantial prizes. Although their decision on the prize was accepted, the painting was not shown by the museum because of its nature. Without having seen the work it is impossible to comment upon it or its merits, but the issue of censorship is not difficult to evaluate. Whatever prerogative supposedly sanctions it is a shibboleth as false as it is untenable and it should not exist. The action will undoubtedly be rationalized, it will not be justified.

In the show’s installation, James Speyer, Curator of 20th Century Art at the Art Institute has placed the works so that the figurative confronts the abstract. The emergence of a healthy expression in abstract art, here, is something comparatively new; the figurative is a more indigenous component. In the present show the abstract (i.e., non-objective) is represented in both painting and sculpture—or whatever term is suitable to the varied manifestations of three-dimensional form. Gary Bower’s painting, Seventy Seven and Tom Milo’s untitled painting both display a mastery of the formal idiom, limited, precise, restrained; Curtis Barnes’s Gallic Green with its touch of chiaroscuro breaks the strict formalist discipline and the introduction of such an illusionistic element heightens the surface tension. John Paskiewicz’s Box Kit Up And Down has almost the specificity of a graphic designer’s commission—the rectangles of color projected from the flat canvas hung on the wall to the cube set in front of it; the extension from one dimension into another. The abstract tendency, though somewhat modified, characterizes another group of works in the show such as Francis Piatek’s Ninth Tube Painting and Jordan Davies’s untitled painting with its interlacing bands of color—illusionistic in the former in the representation of rounded surfaces, coloristic in the latter. Jack Powell’s painting with its floating slices makes use of the conventional ideas of form and manner of rendering, though its sweet pastel colors relate it to other, less timely, expressions. One of the very handsome paintings, Ray Siemanowski’s Cardboard Landscape, epitomizes certain qualities expressed in the show by many others, e.g., the impatience of so many of today’s artists with traditional devices, stylistic as well as medium; content as well as overall concept. This excludes among other things any richness of surface texture or any possible exploitation of the medium and it eliminates nuances of tone and color. In fact one impression gained from the show is of the cacophonous colors, bright, hard, sometimes involved in unremitting optical effects. Emphasis upon the optical exclusively and for its own sake is minimal here.

In marked contrast with this are several paintings, e.g., Miyoko Ito’s Aurora and Tom Kapsalis’s Artist’s House that demonstrate the fascination which the more traditional qualities of the medium, its application and subtle control of nuance in color and tone for evocative effects still have for some artists. Seeing such paintings as Ito’s with its lyrical grace and quiet power, hung alongside others so emphatically different reaffirms the fact that style must be personal and individual, at least for some artists.

Stephen Urry’s steel sculpture Blat arching through space achieves an effect almost like drawing; Olaf Borge’s and William Cowan’s sculptures, both untitled, are local expressions of minimal form. Richard Goldwach’s rippling floor panels are environmental in concept, though not large in actual dimension. Displayed under fluorescent light they become a poetic dreamscape, a somewhat unexpected quality in the abstract formalist concept.

The more figurative modes of painting and sculpture have, as in the past, had a pervasive appeal for many Chicago artists. Several examples demonstrate the staying power of some artists, e.g., Gertrude Abercrombie’s painting The Magician, visionary and dreamlike and Cosmo Campoli’s sculpture Birth which is more universally symbolic.

Popular imagery—almost the whole range of it from all possible sources appears to be the inspiration for a number of young artists: David Hickman’s Sara’s World, Jerry Garrett’s The Flower Vendor, in mixed media, Norbert Leinen’s We Three, Roy Schnackenburg’s construction, Lincoln Park, or Peter Holbrook’s somewhat more literal The Perfumed Garden. These, indicative of a characteristic found in a number of others, all seem to be pitched in a huckster’s intensity, unvarying, unremitting, the hard sell. Such terms are not necessarily pejorative but they indicate something of the air which attests to the content and the consistency of a common style. Frank Gaard’s A Clear Shift, cut-up images coloring book in style, in plastic envelopes, suspended within the wood frame is a deft expression of the fragmented image which by its presentation is transformed into a new image.

Several pieces in the Chicago Show are by five artists who are currently exhibiting as the “Hairy Who” group at the Hyde Park Art Center. The interest in imagery drawn from all of the mass media rendered in five distinct styles can be viewed as an extension of the oft-mentioned concern with the figurative but it has converged with forms of a more top-ical nature and this should be read as a local expression of Pop art.

This is the second annual show of the Hairy Who group and its recurrence has of course caused much curiosity about the title. It seems to be evident that its arcane meaning—if there is one—will die with the artists involved. Of course the Dadaists took inordinate delight in obfuscation and Hairy Whoism must be traced to that illegitimate parentage. This year’s show, which includes paintings by Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca and Karl Wirsum is even “hairier” than the first; it is also by any criterion, sparkling with a good humored vitality and is without qualification excellent. With all of the various promotional devices and press coverage, it is possible to fail to consider the works themselves, or to give them the proper consideration.

The announcement poster was an outlandish, exquisite corpse—done by all five artists. In true Dada spirit, their delight in perversity made it all but unreadable. Other exquisite corpses were scattered throughout the 32-page Hairy Who comic book. Though each artist contributed several pages (as well as designing a button for distribution at the vernissage) all of these contributions, both group and individual, demonstrate the unadulterated lampooning of nearly everything from traditional media and styles to exhibition display and exhibition catalogs.

As indicated in the review of the Chicago Show these are not the only artists in Chicago who are doing fine work, but the fact that they are a cohesive group makes them unique, especially in a city where such groups have seldom coalesced. Except for some overlaps in style (more in medium than in content or manner of presentation) the common ingredient, and this is not all-pervasive, is their unadulterated elan. Common to all, it is not constricting and each artist succeeds in his individual expression of an irreverent caricature—a cool celebration of all or at least a great deal that is banal and trivial. Both subject and title in individual pieces range from the bizarre and absurd to the “punny” (both verbal and visual) and the funny and outrageous. If slapstick films of the silent screen gave vent to a particular humor certainly this is a present day manifestation of the same.

Karl Wirsum’s paintings are often horrendous and elegant in their intricate patterning. His one man show was reviewed here in April and many of the same pieces are included here.

Gladys Nilsson’s paintings on plexiglass are more fanciful, more Learian in their tradition of burlesque, and, citing antecedents suggestive of Ubu Roi and company. Though not sheer fantasy they “take off” on the unbelievable juxtapositions and incongruities of our world and with a slight development toward caricature are peopled by a duck-billed, elephant-snouted comic chorus line.

Rocca’s paintings extend and elaborate the fuzzy, purposefully hesitant linear movement. The squiggly line, pictographic style and candy-box colors are synthesized into a parody of the gauche and the gaudy. This tendency to parody is accentuated by the somewhat painterly application of oil to canvas.

L’Art Brut, discovered by Dubuffet and others, ranges from the exotic and the esoteric to the trite and the commonplace. As source material it has interested the entire group but it seems especially meaningful in Jim Nutt’s work. This is not only true of the primary or major image in a piece but also the tiny images tattooed over the surface. There is a sensitive feeling for the pattern and its interaction with the idea—its expression of the idea—and a fine feeling for color which is generally bright but with occasional overtones of subtle tones. Painted on plexiglass they transform and celebrate the trivial and seem to be meant for the walls of a penny arcade, a super-dooper penny arcade.

Of the five artists, Art Green seems to give expression to less of the generally acknowledged H. W. components than the others. Mass media images are less apparent and they seem close to De Chirico’s enigmas. Although such a comparison is justified it must not be overemphasized since Green’s is a consistent and personal style. “Marvelous” juxtapositions of images and constructions, these negate any feeling of nostalgia in the use of contemporary motifs painted in bright, almost fluorescent colors. They are fantastic constructions, strange, stage machinery from which the curtain has suddenly been drawn.

––Whitney Halstead