New York

Karl Wirsum

Phyllis Kind Gallery

A creation myth explaining the origins of Karl Wirsum might become paradigmatic for the whole Chicago Imagist school. The artist himself has noted that he and Bugs Bunny share the same year of birth (1939), as if that coincidental bit of chronology explains his predilection for cartoon characters in an ever-expanding repertory of bizarre hybrids drawn from popular culture and personal invention. Wirsum’s decision to become an artist was made while he was recovering from a skull fracture; he was five years old. After studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago he, along with Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, and others, participated in the sensational first “Hairy Who” exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center, a storefront exhibition space on Chicago’s South Side in 1966. The rest is history.

Many of the original Chicago Imagists drew inspiration from comic strips, kitsch objects, sources in the ethnographic collections of the Field Museum, and the work of primitive folk artists. Wirsum has a large collection of toys, noisemakers, penny banks, robots, and kites, a visual archive now stored in his attic.

He has continually refined his technique, color schemes, and surface to the point of gleaming perfection, so that the hokiest subject matter is represented in a system of elegant, linear, geometrized patterns. Like tattoos, these patterns seem to have a life of their own; like Celtic ornament, they constitute a formally self-sufficient labyrinth. Wirsum’s virtuosity is such that he can apply his ornamentation to paintings, drawings, sculpture, masks, toys, and costumes, and he makes art from paper, wood, tin, vinyl, and canvas. This ubiquitous quality and sense of design remind me of Keith Haring’s proliferating signs, but unlike Haring’s, Wirsum’s work is finely crafted and obsessively finished.

This art is good-natured (even innocent), direct, and very amusing. Its two dominant qualities, a lack of pretense and a bold sense of play, may have prevented it from receiving the kind of regionalist acclaim that has blessed other Chicagoans. Wirsum’s work has the associational wit of George Carlin’s humor and the nostalgic appeal of diners, early Walt Disney animation, and Fiesta-ware colors. Rather than playing off the aura of the Jetsons, however, his slick, impersonal surfaces, graphic communications, and biting humor produce new categories of cartoon attitudes. Wirsum is a dangerous flirt who not only admires kitsch and incorporates it in his work but represents its images as icons of high art. Unlike Claes Oldenburg, whose Pop objects streamline mundane forms almost to abstraction and magnify them so that scale is content and occasionally critique, Wirsum makes conventional paintings of banal subjects. Martian Arts Made with Pre-War Rubber, 1984, is a flattened, symmetrical version of an inflatable toy, while Private Parts of a Burning Issue, 1984, is a wonderful manual-style drawing of a flat rabbit, with replacement parts, trying to swallow its mouth. A Constructivist palette (red, white, and black) meets computer graphics in three 1983 paintings of “Count Fasco’s White Mice,” a group who recall the Pep Boys signs. These works offer no obvious critique, no easy irony that might allow protective distance or equivocal commentary, but rather an unabashed, openhearted embrace of values of design and good humor fast vanishing from America’s carnivals and gift shoppes. If there is a critique hiding in Wirsum’s idiosyncratic icons of plastic toys and robots, it is an implied one which deliberately denies current popular culture and salvages the artifacts of earlier, more innocent times. Wirsum derives genuine pleasure from these toys and playthings; he wants to return that pleasure to viewers of his art.

Wirsum’s sense of visual play and pun is echoed in his almost embarrassing titles (3 My Eye Land Cyclops, 1984, The Shadow of Your Simile, 1984, Fat Ternal Twins, 1983). Like his agile and precise line, the titles slither from one meaning to another. The effect of these puns, though, depends not on their language but, in the manner of concrete poetry, on how they look. In this exhibition several figures liberated themselves from their specimen positions and strode into more naturalistic poses. Particularly malevolent was Cat Burglar Kicks Out the Jams, 1984, showing a Batman-type lug stepping into pj’s, and Spitting Image, 1984, of a tense, compact figure with bulging muscles and a boxing glove. Like a Trekkie who hasn’t been completely beamed in, his right hand is a spinning black and white disk which recalls the Rotoreliefs of Duchamp. This was the zinger of the exhibition, with clashing colors—tangerine, vermilion, green, and white—that are as close as can be to kitsch without actually becoming it. And if we take this character at his word, we confront a disarming statement of resemblance, imitation, and perception embodied in a Dick Tracy tough looking like trouble and shooting spit in the shape of green baseball bats from holes in his teeth. With this painting Wirsum outdistances his sources and achieves his goal of eliciting a dual response: “ha ha” and “ah ah.”

Judith Russi Kirshner