Philadelphia

Thomas Chimes

Locks Gallery

In a long horizontal line extending through the gallery, the faces of the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century artistic and intellectual avant-garde—Arthur Rimbaud, Antonin Artaud, Oscar Wilde, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Marcel Duchamp, Alfred Jarry—stared out at the contemporary visitor. With this remarkable set of small portraits, Thomas Chimes aligned himself with the great champions of the imagination, the writers, artists, and philosophers whose life and work embraced the unconscious and illuminated a kind of freedom from the cultural values of their historical moment. Shown here in the first of a series of planned exhibitions of Chimes’s work, these paintings, executed between 1973 and 1978, signaled a new direction for the artist, a Philadelphia native who was formally schooled in New York in the late ’40s, at the height of Surrealist and abstract modes of painting. Dark and moody, these meticulously crafted likenesses, painted for the most part after photographs, marked a shift from his earlier abstract and symbolic investigations, allowing him to throw off what he referred to as the pressure of being contemporary.

While all those depicted spoke to the new vision Chimes was seeking, it was Jarry, the great synthesizer of reality and imagination, who cast the longest shadow over the artist’s future work. It was through the creator of Ubu that Chimes took his metaphysical leaps, from the hermetic Pataphysician’s “science of imaginary solutions” to the world of Greek mythology that has informed Chimes’s most recent body of work. Portrayed six times, Jarry seemed to be everywhere; his presence was further reinforced by a painting of Laval, his hometown in the northwest of France, as well as by imaginary portraits of Hebert, Ubu, and Faustroll, his literary progeny.

Chimes has said that the other individuals on view were linked to Jarry by some association that he either discovered through reading or constructed himself. In each case, the reflective mood of the portraits suggests that Chimes was more interested in the interior life than the public posture of his subjects. The cumulative effect of viewing so many antiheroes was enhanced by the way the images seemed to shift between their photographic origins and their status as paintings, in which the photographic information is slowed down for both artist and viewer. Chimes’s initial attraction to the photographs as a literal trace grew to have metaphoric implications, suggesting the collapse of time and space and drawing him closer to his aesthetic ideals. Here he could meditate on what he valued in the others and, by this attentive and imaginative lingering, what he might secure in himself.

These iconic portraits feel very considered, from the many frontally positioned cropped heads and figures to the warm-toned, nostalgic palette; even the oversize wooden frames contribute, by their very craft, to the sense of another, lost time. With his own signature often prominently placed near the subject’s face, Chimes makes a whimsical nod to his otherwise serious pursuit of identity and what it means to learn from the masters.

Eileen Neff