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Chicago Cultural Center
Retrospectives are always a slippery achievement: they risk becoming either a curious, often embarrassing postmortem, or else a self-congratulatory panegyric. Happily, "JUMPIN' BACKFLASH: Original Imagist Artwork, 1966 - 1969" is none of the above. It surprises; it jolts; it lives, even after three decades of significant social and artistic shifts. This exhibition, at the Chicago Cultural Center until April 2nd, gathers together some of the most representative, and best work of fifteen Chicago artists who came to wide notice with a series of exhibitions at the Hyde Park Art Center in the late 1960s: artists linked primarily, and perhaps only, by an independence from the New York/East Coast trendy hypes and fashions of the day, and by an insistence that art have some motivation and content other than 'Camp' and quotation. And this latter attitude may well be the key to why so much of the work on display remains very much 'up and kicking' in this new millennium.
The artists who were grouped under "The Hairy Who," or "Nonplussed Some," or "False Image," -- Chicago Imagism -- have indeed shared an important distinction, a fact often pointed out by art critic, James Yood, who wrote the introduction to the highly useful -- informative and comprehensive -- 34-page catalogue to "JUMPIN' BACKFLASH." The difference is summarized by Don Baum who first organized the showings at the Hyde Park Art Center in the late 60s and early 70s: "The artists all shared a uniform disbelief in New York and the New York School." Yood as well notes "the fundamental irreverence and impish disdain for authority (in whatever form, including the canons of art history, new or old)...." (In the recent decade, the British, feeling bypassed by the art market, have similarly incubated some first-rate art. Perhaps an excess of kudos and quick cash -- often not to the artists -- distorts a healthy, living art.)
The viewer will not find 'Pop Art's' now conventional quotations from the 'popular,' i.e. commercial consumerism; nor did the Chicago artists saunter off into the infinitely arcane actualizations of abstractional theorizations... (Well, the late 60s N.Y. art herd did get a bit schizophrenic, in words, words and deed: 'Pop' or 'pure' paint, indeed.) In the catalogue, Yood gives a succinct assessment of Chicago Imagism:
Which is pretty much to say that each of the artists must be met with on his (or her) own terms. (A third of the artists shown are women: again, this was Chicago, not New York).
Each viewer will find his own highlights and favorites, but is surprising how consistently well, timely and effective, the art in "JUMPIN' BACKFLASH" stands today, and the inevitable question arises as to why that is. Thirty years is not a long time, but long enough that much art and 'art movements' of the 60s elsewhere have faded into footnotes and period pieces. Nor can it be because many of these artists are alive and actively evolving their work before us -- three, Roger Brown (1941-1997) and Christina Ramberg (1946-1996) of "False Image," and Ed Flood (1944-1985) of "The Nonplussed Some," are gone. Others have moved, scattered. Their art stays on.
Their art remains alive and kicking, but certainly not because the coastal art emporiums acclaimed it. Or lent encouragement. They didn't. At most, there was begrudging acknowledgement of an artistic ferment in the Midwest which didn't play the game and which found a public.
In essence, the Chicago Imagists anticipated and innovated. Throughout "JUMPIN' BACKFLASH," one senses familiar techniques and approaches, many of which came to the fore in the 60s -- a Spirit of the Time -- but which have since burgeoned into the mainstream. There are the echoes of underground comics and psychedelic posters, as in works by Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, Karl Wirsum; reverberations of surrealistic contours a la Yellow Submarine about works by Edward C. Flood and Art Green; even the anticipation of wild computer image in the work of James Falconer. But -- and it is an important Chicago note -- there was purpose and method to the madness. The Imagist weren't... aren't playing to the audience. And they opted for content: the steak, not the sizzle. All the artworks in "JUMPIN' BACKFLASH" assimilated and made peculiarly their own the uses of line, contour, color, new and unconventional themes which appeared 'out and about' the artists, then and now. And their content is theirs as well, not what played for kudos and quick cash. Mainstream visualization may have caught up with the Chicago Imagists, but it can't compete in personal interest, content, creative insight. Here, steak beats sizzle.
Beyond their individual idioms which anticipate and innovate toward a very American expression in art, "JUMPIN' BACKFLASH" reveals content, rather than a fleeting context as in 'Pop art.' One looks at Eleanor Dube's Untitled (1968) and thinks of Giuseppe Arcimboldi and cinema's The Fly. It at once suggests a living form arranged from clothes draped, perhaps over a chair and, simultaneously, an enormous housefly at prayer. The exhibition catalogue, which offers short essay statements by the artists, prints a somewhat Constructivist poem by Dube, and from the poem, the line "The Stuff That Refreshes" lingers about her art. Her six pieces in "JUMPIN' BACKFLASH" are worth spending time with.
"JUMPIN' BACKFLASH" does not seem like a retrospective. The works do not seem 'dated'. The poet Ezra Pound once wrote that "Poetry is News that stays News," and the same holds for visual art. Robert Guinan's work evokes unusual responses. At first glance, it seems almost late "Viennese Succession" or early Art Deco, but the focal motifs resolve eerily into fetal morphs, or contours reminiscent of humanoid aliens. The panels were done in 1967; and in AD 2000 they continue to draw the viewer in, to perplex and tantalize.
James Falconer in the late 60s acquired an almost hallucinogenic idiom, but it could just as well be tomorrow's art. His Untitled of 1968 seems to pit lush Victorian parlor against fierce tribal motif. Although one is struck by the central symmetry, each of the arms is individually differentiated. Together they create a tension between the sharp, elemental vortex and the seemingly tame, even comfortable framing image.
There are images which linger long after viewing. A prime example is Death-Breath, a 1966 serigraph on paper among the works by Richard Wetzel. Both in spirit and execution, it implies affinities with such German expressionists as Georg Grosz, but for Wetzel, allied with the "Nonplussed Some," Vietnam, not Dachau, more likely supplied the inspirational matrix.
Gladys Nilsson's four pieces in the exhibition are particularly revealing in light of her subsequent, highly productive, artistic evolution. In a work such as Stompin' at the Snake Pit (Watercolor on Paper: 1967) from the collection of Richard Christiansen, havoc is well-managed with whimsy, but one already meets the confident line and effective balancing of contours in composition which characterize much of Nilsson's art. The viewer discerns the overtones of Yellow Submarine or Etienne Delessert, a certain lively 60s spirit, readable and apart from 'Pop," which develops a highly individual vernacular.
"JUMPIN' BACKFLASH," in many such instances is instructive. It affords an opportunity to view the formative working out of styles and approaches for numerous artists who have now become established legacies -- artists such as Ed Paschke, Jim Nutt, Karl Wirsum --and supplies the youthful context. And as Richard Wetzel noted, "it is the first time that ALL the 'Imagist' artists have been included, in person or in print... it should [and does] present a rare opportunity to read the works instead of the words." Artists such as Art Green, Suellen Rocca, Sarah Canright, Ed Flood, Roger Brown, Philip Hanson, Christina Ramberg clearly display 60s works which confirm art as "News that stays News."
Ed Paschke's works are particularly of interest, in light of his painting of recent years. Of the work in this exhibition, his comes closest to the conventions of 'Pop art:' his pieces here frequently do cite images from popular culture or the media, but Paschke turns them to his own creative content. And it is content, rather than context, upon which they work. The works' power, often sardonic and threatening, are even more stirring today than thirty years ago -- an achievement which can rarely be ascribed to much of standard 'Pop art.'
"JUMPIN' BACKFLASH" leaves the viewer with one last impression, and it reflects on the post-WWII 'Art world.' The Chicago 'Imagists,' "The Hairy Who," "Nonplussed Some," and "False Image," gathered up their labels, not out of some 'ideological' unity or manifestos or communal conventions, but rather as a play upon the art establishment and media's insatiable demand for labels and marketing handles. They share an awareness that too often Public Relations ploys determine who gets attention and hard copy. "JUMPIN' BACKFLASH" is an opportunity to judge the art advanced and sustained by Don Baum and others at the Hyde Park Art Center in the 1960s. It displays 'staying power.' The artists came together in the right place at the right time, where Baum and Chicago collectors such as Ruth Horwich exhibited and bought their art. "JUMPIN' BACKFLASH" offers viewers excellent artwork, but also some points for consideration here and now.
The catalogue for "JUMPIN' BACKFLASH: Original Imagist Artwork, 1966 - 1969" costs $15.00 and provides an introduction by Don Baum, essay by James Yood and statements by each artist (critical appraisals for Ed Flood and Christina Ramberg). The illustrations are well-chosen, although the cover is ineptly conceived (why wasn't something from the exhibition used?), and some copies have the bonus of duplicated pages.
"JUMPIN' BACKFLASH: Original Imagist Artwork, 1966 - 1969" will continue until April 2, 2000 at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 East Washington. It is a show well worth seeing.
--G. Jurek Polanski