Milwaukee

Jim Nutt

Fastidious and obsessive to the point of mania, Jim Nutt joins fantastic pictorial inventiveness to scrupulous technique. He appears to have been inspired by Persian and Irish illuminated manuscripts which through meticulous and patient craft made the unbelievable totally palpable. This retrospective demonstrates how Nutt’s greatest skill rests in this quirky dichotomy, his ability to visualize wildly while rendering punctiliously. It can give his work a claustrophobic quality, as his irreverences are translated into art.

Since the first “Hairy Who” exhibition of 1966, Nutt has been identified as a central figure of Chicago Imagism, and his early work in particular helped to define some of its tenets. His funky and irreverent paintings of scatological and sexual dysfunction, and his punning, cartoony faux-violence became emblematic of what was read as Chicago’s in-your-face attitude: its two-fisted dismantling of the amiability of Pop art. Nutt’s hypercharged and iconic figures often behaved outrageously though rendered with extreme care, immaculately painted on the back of Plexiglas sheets. Images such as I’m Da Vicious Roomer, 1969, are obsessive, petulant accomplishments, instances of Nutt’s highly focused attraction for the oddly salacious.

The major body of work that followed adeptly set up curious pictorial psychodramas with small monochromatic paintings that evoked bizarre but poignant vignettes staffed by an ever-expanding repertoire of highly stressed and stylized creatures. These paintings often mimicked the trappings of the theater, for the stories enacted therein have a staginess that slackens their pace and allows them to be reflective. By the mid ’70s, Nutt began giving his works the extensively wrought, painted borders and frames that have since become an integral part of his oeuvre, and in many of his works the narrative can comprise only a small percentage of his painted field. The deep-purple scene at the center of Excuse Me (a Touch Surprised), 1978-79, is reduced to just a few inches, a manuscript-sized, awkwardly charged encounter between three figures. There is a fierce sense of control here, that inextricably links his borders and the tense dramas they surround.

Since 1987, Nutt has concentrated primarily on “portraits” of women; at least all the images rely on the vocabulary of portraiture—they seem like concentrated responses to the psyche of an individual, and in their format they reflect that tradition. No sitters, however, actually pose for these images—they are all derived from Nutt’s imagination. This series has become an absorbing arena of nuance and modulation as Nutt tinkers endlessly with rivulets of hair, the architecture of physiognomy, tight ranges of color, and the evocation of mood. With their wildly exaggerated noses and rubbery features, these figures should be absurd or comic, and yet never are. Nutt makes each unique, and the depth of his concentration always imbues them with stature and presence. They are simply the most recent manifestations of an idiosyncratic vision of the very first rank.

James Yood