New York

Jim Nutt

Phyllis Kind Gallery

I never was a little boy who got particular delight out of dangling wormy creatures above mommy’s head, so the mischief of doing “bad” images and displaying them in stodgy places where only “proper” things should be shown—i.e. art galleries—fails to give me vicarious fascination. Nor am I real amazed at stuff that wants to jolt me from my middle-class values, make me blush in front of my friends, or generally show me that everything in a world I thought was virtuous either stinks or is subject to human ridicule.

Jim Nutt’s fiendish images drawn on paper don’t really look so fiendish, and, no, the reason for that ain’t that I, too, have become a monster, but rather that I recognize the devices in his work and secretly think he’s more of a designer than a worm-dangler. By now, his vocabulary of masturbating, nose-blowing, drooling, somersaulting, sniffing, running characters has become pretty well conventionalized. Nutt’s drawings and constructions on plexiglass of the 1960s (at which time he was a member of the now defunct “Hairy Who”) were simply particularized, small-minded, and raw. Now, at least, there is more format to the work and, thus, a broader scope for interpretation.

What I am commenting on is the entrance of style into formerly merely rakish work. Each of the current drawings is set in a kind of puppet-stage space, with the large-scale characters doing something gross or nasty to each other and a cast of small-scale figures dashing around, watching the large characters, or engaging in their own little dramas, just as suggestive or absurd as the large-scale interaction. Like a Mad magazine Hieronymous Bosch, his work is a narrative theater in which everybody “does it,” and the big folk do it with a little more style. But in the extravisual sense, all of Nutt’s characters are really very small. His starting points for invention are comic strips, hardly the source of humanity’s potential. Compare this to Leon Golub, for example, who gives real stature to men in battle. Nutt’s theater is self-contained. No figure breaks the format to give a sense of falsity or to contrast one value with another. Nutt has been called a “humanist,” but his vision is nonmoral, nonemotional, non-confused. His typology is harmless, with a bit of formal tension.

It is possible to look through the content to the drawing: the focus is on emotive line, tensions of weight and scale, ambiguous shape, and symmetry. Even his notorious variations on genitalia function above all as patterns. He is tremendously influenced by the decorative forms in tribal art. In a sense, style has taken a certain “punch” out of him, and, at this point, I’m not too sure there is a reason for his work. But, perhaps, the little boy is only growing up and finding other things to do than offend mommy?

C. L. Morrison