Joseph Yoakum, Paradice Range near Damascus Syria South East Asia, 1969, pen and colored pencil on paper, 12 × 19".

Joseph Yoakum, Paradice Range near Damascus Syria South East Asia, 1969, pen and colored pencil on paper, 12 × 19".

Joseph Yoakum

Joseph Yoakum, Paradice Range near Damascus Syria South East Asia, 1969, pen and colored pencil on paper, 12 × 19".

The fabulist and inveterate drifter Joseph Yoakum was known to claim that he had traveled the world as a circus man, a soldier, and a train porter during the first six or so decades of his life. In 1962, at the age of seventy-one, he took up drawing and began working out of a storefront gallery on Chicago’s South Side, quickly becoming the self-taught paragon of the city’s art community. Yoakum’s visionary landscapes had an especially profound impact on the developing visual styles of the Chicago Imagists, who were rising to international prominence in the late ’60s (and who made him an honorary member). His influence is perhaps most clearly felt in Chicago Imagist Roger Brown’s work. The younger artist’s graphic paintings featuring built-up, repetitive motifs are indebted to Yoakum’s rich visual vocabulary and inventive use of pattern and design. Brown would acknowledge that discovering Yoakum was “like finding Rousseau in our own backyard.”

At Carl Hammer Gallery, an intercontinental array of fourteen small drawings by Yoakum modestly punctuated the perimeter walls. Encyclopedia illustrations, travel magazines, and personal recollections served as source material for Yoakum’s landscapes of astonishing places—real and imagined vistas culled from as far away as Mongolia, Ireland, Brazil, and Syria—distinguished by idiosyncratic geological features. Yet the wonderment that these drawings elicit stems from the artist’s spiritually imprinted imagination, which produced naive but formally accomplished graphic translations of the external world. For example, Blue mounds Highest Point, of Kansas State, 1970, rendered in ballpoint pen and colored pencil, commingles two unique hill formations: a dramatic, twisted blue mountain ridge flanked by four crimson-shaded conical mounds, each carefully patterned with linear striations. Emerging from a pattern of lime-green trees, these peaks are ringed by the outline of a distant fire, the smoke from which consumes a blue sky. As eerily haunting as Albert Pinkham Ryder’s dense clouds or Charles Burchfield’s animal-shaped nighttime mists, Yoakum’s flat brown plumes take on ghostly contours that hover above the fixed landscape below.

A watercolor and pencil composition, A Granit mtn. Riverside Cal., ca. 1962–64, combines both aerial and atmospheric perspectives to evoke an especially abstract interpretation of the physical world. Here, blocky brown rock formations are arranged in a quilt-like pattern that is broken only by the contour of a blue lake and small fields of uniformly colored green trees. However, its red-and-blue atmosphere glows with vast illusionary depth. Yoakum’s use of watercolor offers a pulsing radiance that complements his slow and diligent line work, a spatial affect less convincingly achieved by the colored pencils and ballpoint-pen drawings.

Mana Kea near Papaikow on Hawaiian Island USA, ca. 1969, a fantastical stab at depicting a culturally dense landscape in aqua, purple, orange, and blue, was inspired by Polynesian motifs. Nearly unrecognizable as a landscape, this drawing offers up a selection of organic abstract shapes that take their cue from sea corals and woodcarvings. By contrast, in Paradice Range near Damascus Syria South East Asia, 1969, Yoakum makes a detailed attempt at accuracy, adorning the sandy folds of a desert landscape with palm and cypress trees. A centrally placed yellow sun with long pointed rays orients the drawing like a compass, giving the composition’s foreground, middle ground, and background a median focal point.

The story, possibly apocryphal, that Yoakum began to draw after an image of Lebanon appeared to him in a dream was widely perpetuated by Chicago’s art establishment during the artist’s most prolific years. What we can verify is that Yoakum described his drawing activity as a “spiritual unfoldment,” believing that the meaning of the picture was revealed to him while he worked on it. We also know that his line and pattern work greatly influenced Chicago-based artists such as Christina Ramberg, Jim Nutt, and Gladys M. Nilsson and that his radiant gradations had a pivotal effect on both Brown and Philip Hanson. As the Chicago Imagists receive a critical embrace from the contemporary art world, Yoakum’s drawings are a poignant reminder that the self-taught-artist tradition heavily contributed to their preposterous, virtuosic imaginings.

Michelle Grabner