Chicago

Mr. Imagination

Carl Hammer Gallery

Mr. Imagination is a great redeemer, an artist who rescues and reclaims what has been debased, overlooked, and tossed away. His forays into the trash bins of modern America permit him to perform his acts of transubstantiation. Mr. Imagination takes special delight in this process of resurrection and reempowerment, and in his role as the means through which this occurs. He has known his calling since 1978, taking his new name and beginning his vocation as a self-taught street artist after recovering from serious gunshot wounds. His sandstone sculptures (carved with the use of a nail) of humans, animals, and words found an early following in Chicago, a city which has always shown great interest in outsider art, and where he began showing in galleries in 1983.

In this exhibition Mr. Imagination presented two recent bodies of work which show a bold shift in media. In the first, he takes preexisting objects—a mirror, big pieces of wood or boards—and covers all or most of them with an arrangement of hundreds and hundreds of used beer-bottle caps, providing them with a glowing and shiny aura. Sometimes, as in King & Queen Pedestal Faces, or Self Portrait, both 1989, Mr. Imagination paints on these surfaces rigid and hieratic faces, and here the bottle caps become fantastic hair adornments, a kind of raiment of stature. The artist collects these caps from taverns in his neighborhood, seeing in them not garbage, but resonant bits of silver and gold, little abstract crowns of colored metal that imply value. Mr. Imagination stacks them up in symmetrical arrays that are reminiscent of the offerings of coins at an altar, and despite the scent of stale beer they still exude, the bottle caps glint in triumph. In Self Portrait, an image of the artist emerges from a row of foil-covered bottle caps; a bit of metal suggests an asp as part of his headdress. Mr. Imagination claims to be a direct descendent of the Egyptian pharaohs, and here calls special attention to his heritage.

In a second group of works—26 in number—the artist took used paintbrushes and the straw bottoms of old brooms and, arranging them upside-down, painted heads on them. The bristles of the brushes are left black and tensed,and read as a determined flat-top hairdo above the faces painted beneath. The handle of each brush is the figure’s neck, and the flat area between the handle and the bristles becomes the face. Rigidly frontal and rather flat, these faces, though sometimes quite funny, gaze forward in a fixed stare. Mr. Imagination does not use artist’s brushes as his source; rather, these are cheap and utilitarian commercial paintbrushes, often with colored plastic handles, and they were purchased, used, and easily discarded by their original owners.

Mr. Imagination makes art out of what he finds, out of what is available for free to almost anyone at any moment. His ability and desire to scavenge and then to exalt through his intervention can be seen as a reflection of his position as an African-American who creates art with the discards of the so-called dominant culture. His art always speaks of his intense pride in his African heritage; his astounding transformations are a further reminder of the self-empowerment that can survive disenfranchisement and diaspora.

James Yood