New York

Gladys Nilsson

Phyllis Kind Gallery

Gladys Nilsson is a founding member of the Hairy Who, the group of Chicago artists responsible back in the late 1960s for initiating the funky style now known as Chicago Imagism. For years the irreverent Hairy Who spirit of poking fun at the panoply of pretensions surrounding so-called high art has continued to inform the tone of her work, although it has never dominated the substance of her vision. Nilsson comments on contemporary American culture through insightful statements tossed off with sophisticated ease. As revealed in this group of recent watercolors, the key to her methods lies in the sensitive way she articulates the relationship between form and content.

The state of dynamic balance that Nilsson maintains between these elements is particularly striking in a diptych entitled Léger Faire, 1986. This painting is, as the title suggests, a takeoff on one of Fernand Léger’s most popular themes—construction workers—as represented, for example, in his painting Les Constructeurs, 1950. In quoting Léger, however, Nilsson has stripped away the macho side of his sensibility so visible in his figures, which, whether male or female, are notably machinelike, their heaviness emphasized by the ubiquitous thick black outlines. What she retains is a certain simplified, decorative treatment of the figures, with their elongated torsos and sharp, simplified facial features that bring to mind the sleek proportions of animals or birds. They have a decidedly instinctive air about them that is in keeping with the antics depicted here. The male construction workers (all in the left panel) and the female construction workers (all in the right panel) are shown sitting or standing, precariously perched on the scaffold, some of them busily doing their job while others cast an admiring eye on members of the opposite sex across from them. The story that can be read into this quasi-narrative picture reveals one of Nilsson’s major concerns—the ideas and feelings contemporary men and women have about and for each other—told with humor and enlivened by the pastel palette and the expansive structure of the composition. The repetition of certain colors and shapes reinforces the connections between figures already linked by desiring glances. Nilsson cleverly disrupts conventional expectations by depicting figures of various sizes inhabiting the same picture plane, thus treating the pictorial surface as a mobile space in which the rational rules of traditional one-point perspective no longer apply.

Another distinctive aspect of Nilsson’s space is its seamlessness, which is apparent in Making Strides, Forewarned, and Terry Towel, all 1986, as well as in Léger Faire. She weaves her numerous figures into tapestrylike compositions in which they have the impact of collective icons. For example, it is difficult to think of a better (that is, truer) symbol of the women’s liberation movement, of the agonies and ecstasies implicit in overturning the traditional roles men have assigned to women, than Making Strides. The actions of these figures—the big women asserting themselves to the men who are intruding upon them, and the little women applauding their sisters like an approving chorus strung across the bottom and top—speak louder than any words.

Ronny Cohen