New York

Jim Nutt

Phyllis Kind Gallery

Perhaps now, while New York is looking at recent European and American figuration with interest, it will begin to realize that Jim Nutt, who took part in the original “Hairy Who” exhibitions in Chicago in the ’60s, needs to be reevaluated in light of the work he has been steadily turning out since the early ’70s. His depictions of encounters between the sexes are arguably the most inventive around, and unlike many younger “newfiguration” artists, he does not appropriate his images from the media. In probing our contemporary dislocations, our tendency toward confrontation rather than discourse, and our frayed images of ourselves, Nutt has accomplished what is difficult to do in a media-overloaded age—the development of a flexible, personal sign system.

Nutt’s most recent exhibition contained two kinds of work: drawings in colored pencil on toothless, de-acidified brown paper, and acrylic paintings in black, white, and gray on Masonite. Nutt’s love for smooth surfaces has long been a cornerstone of his approach; a smooth surface to a painter is like new ice to a figure-skater, and I suspect that part of Nutt’s affection is due to the challenge. Once skater or artist begins, any wrong move or hesitation is immediately recorded. In both drawings and paintings, each mark crucially depends on the precision of movement of the hand or wrist. Even more clearly than the paintings from Malcolm Morley’s photorealist phase, Nutt’s work offers a world from which chance and accident are banished. It is not surprising to find such emphasis on control linked with the portrayal of the confrontation between the sexes.

Nutt’s stylized nude figures are simultaneously grotesque and beautiful. He uses a fast, sinuous line to describe the sharp angle of an elbow, the bulge of an ear, the elongations of the thighs and arms, or the arabesque curve of the breasts. The results of these distortions are both humorous and grim. It’s as if Willem de Kooning’s paintings had been turned inside out, the ecstasy removed.

A favorite device of Nutt’s is to simulate a face within a body. Nipples become pupils, a stomach becomes a nose with the belly button as a nostril, while the genitals turn into a long lascivious tongue or mouth. Meanwhile, large abstracted faces loom behind the figures and look on. Proportionally, the relationship between these background faces and the figures parallels that between the viewer and the drama. Other figures in the drawings are smaller, sometimes clothed, and seem to be involved only tangentially in the confrontation. Like the viewer and the large faces, they are witnesses.

A man holds a pubic hair and a blue egg daintily between his fingers. A woman swings a Ping-Pong racquet and points. The gestures are hieratic, part of the private language one develops in a relationship. Rather than embracing, the antagonists most often confront each other with evidence of some kind. Yet the impulse behind Nutt’s depictions is speculative. He is inventing incidents rather than recording them.

The world Nutt portrays is fraught with hostility and confrontation. What tenderness there is comes from the lavish attention he pays his characters. By placing faces within the figures, Nutt implies that we are made up of many selves, and that the root of them all is both aggressive and insecure, hostile and nervous. At the same time, these visual echoes suggest that our apprehensive psychological self lives in a hall of mirrors. Its reflections and re-reflections disclose the pettiness we all have in common.

Despite the apparent grimness of his vision, Nutt is able to infuse a great deal of humor into his work. It’s hard not to be sympathetic to the discomfort his figures feel, the nasty tics and gestures they display. Unlike many of the artists of his own and the recent generation, Nutt has gone beyond irony and cliché—the revived signposts of the ’60s—into a realm both darkly metaphysical and speculative.

John Yau