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A Blue Belle, 1999
Watercolor & Gouache on Paper
40 1/2"x25 3/4"
© Gladys Nilsson, 2000

Gladys Nilsson
60th Birthday Show

May 5 - June 3, 2000
Tues-Fri: 10 am-5 pm;
Sat 11 am-5 pm

Jean Albano Gallery
215 West Superior Street
Chicago, Illinois 60610
Telephone: 312/ 440-0770

"Gladys Nilsson: 60th Birthday Show" is at the Jean Albano Gallery, Chicago, until June 3, 2000... an opportunity to view an established Chicago artist at the peak of form. This exhibition presents lively, colorful art, spontaneous in inspiration, excellent in execution: pure Gladys Nilsson. There are twenty-two works in watercolor, or water color and gouache; all on paper. But it doesn't seem like sixty years in the making. It's never and it's always: pure Gladys Nilsson.

you shall above all things be glad and young.
For if you're young, whatever life you wear

it will become you; and if you are glad
whatever's living will yourself become.

E.E.Cummings, Selected poems
(Liveright: 1994)

E.E. Cummings summed it up, and there is so much in Nilsson's art that brings that poet immediately to mind. Nilsson was among the artists in Chicago Imagism's "Hairy Who," a grouped characterized most by an insistent independence in their art: no concessions to history nor whatever PR 'hype' ruled the day. "Gladys Nilsson: 60th Birthday Show" -- "whatever's living will yourself become."



His Distraction, 1998-1999
Watercolor & Gouache on Paper
23"x30"
© Gladys Nilsson, 2000

At first glance, the current work even now resonates to a '60s spirit.' This is deceptive: the world within Nilsson's art pulses not with some spirit of the 60s, but with an ever recurring, persistent spirit which that Age of Aquarius touched upon and renewed. Nilsson, one of the gentler, more fanciful artists among the 'Chicago Imagists,' reveals some kinship with such as Etienne Delessert and even a Peter Max (perhaps with Chagall and Dali as guardian angels); but Nilsson's very human, very personal concerns equally summon to heart the urbane Archy and Mehitabel of Don Marquis, the fare of James Thurber, Ogden Nash, William Espy; even the suburbanite John Updike in his more humorous moods. At times one finds the deeper and darker insight of a Dorothy Parker, a Mark Twain, an E.E. Cummings. "Gladys Nilsson: 60th Birthday Show" offers the humane, household foibles personal to the artist and those about her; but beneath the wit and smiles, there are also the honest human failings unveiled for all.

His Distraction (1998-1999) is a case in point. To many a male, it brings to mind the aphorism of Polish writer, Stanislaw Lec: "All about me, naked women with their clothes on": A basic (and usually innocent) male response. A woman might, however, turn to Dorothy Parker:

Woman wants monogamy;
Man delights in novelty.
Love is woman's moon and sun;
Man has other forms of fun.
Woman lives but in her lord;
Count to ten, and man is bored.
With this the gist and sum of it,
What earthly good can come of it?

"General Review of the Sex Situation" (1926)
In Enough Rope (Boni & Liveright: 1926)

His Distraction offers a concatenation of emotions and response; contexts and facades; potentials; fantasies and histories. At image left, the focal male's right hand grasps the (is it a Walter Mitty-ed?) nude's ankle. Next to this, however, is a small vignette of the affronted heroine setting table for a meal; a younger couple, lesser in scale, intertwines about the central couple's legs. More to lower image right, an apparent sowing of devilish forked tails sprouts up. And, while the affronted female seems to hold forth a green mirror of jealousy, at the rightmost image edge there stands a vignette in which she absently sails a balloon, while her mate embraces her beseechingly. A companion female alter ego looks away, out beyond the painting. Fury at the male reflex; feigned indifference; punishment and saving face; the social compromise that comes of commitment. A Thurber Carnival... A Dorothy Parker path to death of soul.

Scene Eye to I (1999) is another representative example of Nilsson's work in "Gladys Nilsson: 60th Birthday Show" at the Jean Albano Gallery. Scene Eye to I demonstrates Nilsson's ability to unify a central focus and peripheral vignettes by using strong background fields, in this case, walls, floor and ceiling of a schematic and impossibly non-Euclidian room. Here, the focal female, perhaps a self-portrait, and her alter egos defend defenseless nature against nature in the guise of feline defiance. In "Gladys Nilsson: 60th Birthday Show," one senses that civil conduct, like fairy tales, is something which works, but only if one believes. In his preface to the exhibition catalogue, David Russick, art critic and friend of Nilsson, notes that the protagonist of many pieces springs from the artist herself: "Who am I today? Which of my roles, woman, artist, daughter, wife, mother, friend, or combinations thereof, shall I examine in this painting?" In Scene Eye to I, as in a number of Nilsson's works, the woman is the preserver of the peace, nurturer, stabilizer, civilizer. Scene Eye to I can be contrasted with an old rhyme: "Peace is purchased at price of words/ But cat was meant to stalk small birds." [And smaller edibles.... A Polish comment on post WWI Germany.] As is also evident inHis Distraction, Nilsson's visual feast is founded on a just universe (something which only humans add to nature).



Scene Eye to I, 1999
Watercolor & Gouache on Paper
15 1/4"x22 3/4"
© Gladys Nilsson, 2000

Which is not to say that the world within "Gladys Nilsson: 60th Birthday Show" is without provocation or temptation. A Blue Belle (1999) or Spare RM (15"x23": 1999) suggest tables may turn. In A Blue Belle, it is the woman who is provocateur, seducteur who flirts with three, while at image right, her left hand pets a man who pets a dog which smiles at her animated footwear. A diminutive male kisses the Blue Belle's right hand; while she eclipses what might well be a younger, innocent reflection of herself. A Blue Belle intertwines time and hierarchy in a commentary, perhaps fantasized, on the unending 'dance' of women and men. And yet, there is a lightness and innocence, a tongue-in-cheek feint at the libertine. In Spare RM, a woman clad in blue passes and regards with seeming disdain the eager male observer in a vignette beneath her, presenting another side of the coin. Both imply a female reservation and restraint, which, in many paintings, men seem to possess to a lesser degree. Dorothy Parker's lines may indeed shed light on the totality.

A domesticated nature certainly is much in evidence in the work of "Gladys Nilsson: 60th Birthday Show." In many pieces, animals and plants abound. The watercolor on paper, Big Plant (15"x22 3/4": 1999), seems benevolent, although the male in the couple appears apprehensive: either about the flower above, watered by his mate, or about the attentions of the second female at image left (perhaps his mate's alter ego). There may well be reason: In Her Big Tree (11"x13": 1999), a watercolor and gouache on paper, although a small homuncular skulks at lower center, the single female seems to have opted for the company of beasts, the serpent being most conspicuous. On her shoulder, doves, if they are doves, assume a vulture-like posture... and a four-legged bird-beast is her familiar. The forms and expressions join what in so many of Nilsson's paintings critic, James Yood, calls "...an irrepressible love of incident, a Boschian passion to animate and intensify compositions with a dense carpeting of bodies, with flexible limbs and torsos bending and curving to her will." (James Yood in Gladys Nilsson, John Natsoulas Press:1993)



Her Big Tree, 1999
Watercolor & Gouache on Paper
11"x13"
© Gladys Nilsson, 2000

Yood's essay, noted above, is an excellent commentary on Nilsson's work. An additional notice can be made of the artist's visual punning, image against motif. Playing Doubles (10 3/4"x17": 1998), a watercolor on paper, is a prime example. At right, against a red background, a somewhat conventional couple appears; there is a polite social implication in the red napkin on the woman's lap, and in her offer of fruit in a dish. At left, a more Bohemian, bird-couple sports masks of human visage. Whether the man, being swung gleefully over mushrooms in the lower vignette offers a clue is conjecture; the effect is of satire, Boschian and yet still current. Bird (7"x5": 1998), a watercolor and gouache, plays to visual affinities of woman and feathered admirer. Identities bend to artistic pun; and, in Little Vahhhse (11 1/2"x15 1/8": 1999) the vase seems a materialization of intents lurking in the couple at left.

Throughout these paintings there is a comfortableness in the actions and attitudes with animals (and plants), but a sense of polite gaming among people. This disconnect is strengthened by works such as the watercolor Thoughts (5"x7": 1999), where three separate countenances of the woman seem to simultaneously express a tentative questioning, joy, and high anxiety. In the central vignette, the tiny female alter ego reaches out to a bird. And in An Ocean Place (7"x10": 1998), a watercolor and gouache, again it is a bird which hails the lone woman's seaward telescope.

Each painting is an implied situation, a narrative with multiple emotions and responses; contexts and facades; potentials; fantasies and histories. Nilsson's art does not readily lend itself to precise explications, plots and subplots. Each viewer finds something new. Nor can one always explain the delight they give. They convey what poet Ezra Pound called "piths and gists," and even E.E. Cummings observed:

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;

Viewers at the opening had a thoroughly wonderful time.

Nilsson's art in "Gladys Nilsson: 60th Birthday Show," now at the Jean Albano Gallery, displays a Gallic spirit of visual play, akin to artists such as Etienne Delessert; and in content embodies an English sense of personal life, the 'little gods of the hearth' Max Beerbohm so enjoyed. There is a bit of E.E. Cummings, and of Dorothy Parker: but, ultimately, it is pure Gladys Nilsson. One comes away with the sense that:

There is little in afternoon tea
To appeal to a person like me
Polite conversation evokes the elation
A cow might enjoy in a tree.

Gelett Burgess, On Drawing-room Amenities
The Faber Book of Nonsense Verse (Faber & Faber: 1979)

A catalogue of "Gladys Nilsson: 60th Birthday Show," with a preface by David Russick, is available from Jean Albano Gallery for $15.00. It is well worth it. There is a web entry for Gladys Nilsson at http://sheldon.unl.edu/HTML/ARTIST/Nilsson_G/TO.html

--G. Jurek Polanski

Jurek Polanski has previously written and art edited for Strong Coffee in Chicago. He's also well known and respected among the Chicago museums and galleries. Jurek is currently a Visual Arts Correspondent for ArtScope.net.

Editor's Note: Many books cited in www.artscope.net reviews may be ordered through this site's Barnes & Noble link. E.E. Cummings's Selected Poems is published by Liveright (New York:1994); Dorothy Parker's Complete Poems is offered by Penguin Books (1999); and Stewart, Tabori & Chang published Etienne Delessert (1992). Gladys Nilsson (John Natsoulas Press:1993) includes a preface by Whitney Halstead and a full essay by James Yood.



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