New York

Chicago Group

Feigen Gallery

Unfortunately, the show of thirteen Chicago artists at Feigen downtown almost defeats itself. Intended to acquaint New York viewers with the expressive, fantastic art of a group of young painters affiliated with the Hyde Park Art Center, it creates visual confusion instead. There are too many styles to assimilate at once, given the aggressive quality and dense detail of the works.

On initial impact the show has the cornball bite of a bad souvenir tapestry or a flowered linoleum rug. Colors are deliberately garish, reminiscent of ’30s movie posters and fluorescent marquees. Imagery, often scatological, derives its inspiration from emphatically non-art sources like comic books, psychedelic posters––the commercial kitsch of the last forty years. Each artist has a hermetic vision, compelling in its medieval sense of a personal chamber of horrors revealed. That characteristic creates the impression that there is a cut-off point in innovation here; as though each artist has evolved his own vocabulary of images,
perfected a distinctive style (usually derived from the flat illustrative look of commercial graphic art and comics) and then worked the changes possible only within the system he has created.

The show appears unsophisticated but isn’t. Its primitivism and tastelessness are the result of a deliberate rejection of fine art techniques and contemporary abstraction. These artists are often labeled Pop or Surrealist. Both tags are misleading. Granted, their visual grist is popular imagery, but they have so transformed it that their work is no longer Pop. Surrealism is only useful in describing the visual context for these artists in Chicago, a town of huge private and public collections of Surrealism. Again, they have carried Surrealist biomorphic forms, flattened space and lightlessness into their own private domain.

Jim Nutt is the most imaginative and stylistically sophisticated member of the group. His images are horrible: dismembered bodies and diseased flesh, meticulously rendered in a decorative manner. Recently his work has become more brutal in content and at the same time increased its decorative finesse. The resulting tension between horror and fascination with the intricate, individual passages in the paintings makes his work complex and rewarding.

Gladys Nilsson, Nutt’s wife, does watercolors as intricate and loaded with sexual reference as her husband’s painting. But the sensibility is completely different. Her pictures are filled with snaky, soft, penile forms, half-animal and half-human. They are intertwined in a dense, shallow space made more complicated by her pastel colors. Instead of mutilation, her small watercolors convey snide humor.

It’s difficult to evaluate Karl Wirsum on the basis of this show. With the exception of a papier-mâché head, a delightful fat-man fantasy covered in delicate psychedelic designs, the drawings and paintings are not as strong as Nutt or Nilsson’s work.

Ed Paschke and Roger Brown are two of the strongest artists among the remaining ten. Paschke’s figures glower out from the weird shine of neon signs and jukeboxes. He works in oils that appear to but have no fluorescence. He uses an opaque projector to throw images, frequently from ’30s movie posters, on his canvases; then he departs from them freely, distorting proportions and adding elements with personal childhood references. He sprays paints on in some areas, although most are brushed on. At its best, the brushwork appears sprayed as well.

Roger Brown’s paintings are peculiarly-lit vistas of dance hall interiors, suburban streets and movie houses. The backgrounds are done in dark colors and a Little Lulu comic strip style. Black, silhouetted figures are engaged in activities that should be familiar but appear mysterious. His scenes are made bizarre by double horizons with a white, fluorescent gleam, and windows that should appear lighted but are only blank yellow paint––the comic book code for light.

Kasha Linville