“Joseph Yoakum: His Influence On Contemporary Art And Artists”

This homage included a dozen artists who, according to curator Ken Hodorowski, were in one way or another affected by Joseph Yoakum, the black naive artist from Chicago. All the participating artists collect or own works by Yoakum, and their apparent “responses” range from rather obvious stylistic influences to more subtle emulations of his sensibility. Seven of the twelve artists belong to the group that has come to be labeled the Chicago Imagists, a loose aggregation that came into prominence in the late ’60s—around the same time Yoakum’s work began appearing. Yoakum has been described as a role model for many of the Imagists, who sought inspiration and ideas from primitive “naturals.”

Perhaps more than any stylistic aspect of Yoakum’s work, the thing that struck these young artists at the time was his free, spontaneous expression. This was an approach rarely encountered in courses at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, yet it was second nature to the itinerant South Sider, whose artistic career spanned little more than the decade before he died, aged 86, in 1972. The Imagists in this exhibition—Roger Brown, Phil Hanson, Jim Nutt, Christina Ramberg, Barbara Rossi, Karl Wirsum, and Ray Yoshida—saw something in Yoakum’s work that they could apply to their own. They found license to indulge in the personal, idiosyncratic, and unconventional notions of art that were not taught at SAIC. It would be wrong to assume that Yoakum was the only one doing what he was doing—the Imagists were also looking at other naive and outsider artists such as Henry Darger, Martin Ramirez, and Pauline Simon. But Yoakum was the most visible and prolific of these.

If there was a problem with this show, it was that it didn’t go far enough. Ideally, it would have been nice to mount some of the actual Yoakum drawings belonging to each artist next to their work. As it is, the quality of the dozen Yoakums assembled here was not as high as it could have been. They didn’t come off as well as they might have in the company of the relatively top-notch examples presented by the other artists. Still, the exhibition clearly made its point. What one Chicago critic has identified as the “Wiggly Line” endemic to the Chicago style can be traced to Yoakum’s work. It is present in nearly all of his drawings, used to represent either currents in water or the contours of hills and mountains. Serpentine variations on the form can be found in most of the Imagists’ work here, from Rossi’s ribbons to Yoshida’s bands to Brown’s rows of clouds. Nutt and Wirsum graft the Wiggly Line onto the appendages of their figures, giving them curlicue fingers or winding, tubular arms and legs. Ramberg and Hanson employ landscape imagery reminiscent of Yoakum’s through their repeated use of iconic mountain forms punctuated by caverns and tunnels.

In addition to the Imagists, five more artists were included in the Yoakum fold here: Gregory Amenoff, Cynthia Carlson, John Ferris, Mark Jackson, and David Sharpe. Carlson has spent a good amount of time visiting naive and folk artists around the country, so it is no surprise to find Yoakum’s Wiggly Line incarnated in a spaghettilike abstract work of hers. Although Amenoff was born in St. Charles, Illinois, he became aware of Yoakum’s work long after leaving the Midwest. The abstract art of Amenoff and Carlson suggests a further aspect of the Yoakum influence. It is something Hodorowski describes as an internal activation of form, an animation of the inanimate that seems to make Yoakum’s landscapes “come alive.” Whether or not it is attributable to Yoakum, this vitality is readily apparent in both Amenoff’s and Carlson’s work.

Michael Bonesteel