Jim Nutt

Phyllis Kind Gallery

Jim Nutt’s fictive portraits of women don’t originate with actual sitters; they are born of Nutt’s whimsy. Neither real nor ideal, these pictorial extrapolations are curiously introverted and somnolent. Indeed, Nutt’s scrupulous technique imbues these antilovelies with a hermetic seriousness that their absurd physiognomies at first belie. Tension abounds in these manic paintings, augmented by a claustrophobic quality enhanced by their small scale and heavy frames.

Nutt’s earlier work, which has come to define Chicago Imagism, was replete with paeans of sexual dysfunction; indeed, his scenarios, skirting the muddy edges of perversion, taboo, and violence, constituted an intense and unrelieved examination of pubic life. In these images, woman appears as shrew and virago, temptress and seducer. The excesses of those years have now substantially abated, or, at the very least, have been redirected toward a more considered examination of the women who have long staffed Nutt’s fantasies; his subjects are now invested with rather touching intimations of personhood and stature. Narrative has given way to the spirit of the individual subjects, resulting in surprisingly delicate psychic portraits. It is as if focusing on these women as individuals has caused Nutt to plumb new psychic depths, to discover characters beneath the former caricatures.

Noses and nostrils are the elements of facial architecture that Nutt zeros in on. Wildly exaggerated triangular elements erupt from his faces, functioning as tonal zones complementing the figures’ hair colors. Noses become assertive hooks, often exploding in rivulets of proboscidean glory. Nutt’s palette is restricted to a controlled range of browns, tans, oranges, and ochres, and though these are keyed to a surprisingly luscious pitch, his patient brushwork keeps the temperature of these images tepid, oscillating between warm and cool.

These women ultimately keep their own counsel; waif and vamp meet their viewers with assertive steadfast gazes. In Tooth, 1991, the subject has an unmistakable come-hither look; her narrowed eyes and upturned lips are almost saucy. Pug, 1990, is more pensive and enigmatic. The absurdities of these figures’ floating facial features and bulbous noses are balanced and diffused by the determined set of their gaze and the delicate emotional tension with which they are imbued. Nutt engages in a kind of psychological brinkmanship here, dangling these women over the edge of comic chaos, then rescuing them by the subtlety of his pictorial and painterly skills.

James Yood