Double Take: A Beginner’s Guide To The Chicago Imagists

Unfamiliar with the work of Ed Flood, Suellen Rocca, and Steve Albini's old art teacher, Ed Paschke? Fear not! John Quin visits a survey of Chicago Imagists at the De La Warr Pavilion

How Chicago! Imagists 1960s & 70s, De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, 15 June – 8 September 2019. Courtesy of De La Warr Pavilion. Photo: Rob Harris

The label ‘Chicago Imagists’ has been applied to a large number of artists from the Windy City that came to prominence in the mid-late 1960s. Much of their work looked manically urgent; images with an optical zap, an impact as psychedelically powerful as Marvel comics. These appeared resoundingly in tune with the gonzo madness of an increasingly fried America. Their fans today include Jeff Koons, Peter Doig, and the graphic novelist Chris Ware.

The paintings and constructions of the Imagists often shared elements of both Pop Art and Surrealism. The group had catholic taste, often indifferent to distinctions between high and low culture. They dug comics, the intricate detail of the Dutch Masters, craft and polish, the seemingly naïf work of Outsider Artists and indigenous peoples. And they were deeply into the body and sex and dreams. Surprisingly not many took drugs and not many were into theory. In significant contrast to the then prevalent mood of detachment and cool irony (as typified by Warholian East Coast Pop) it can be observed that the Imagists were disturbingly sincere, and much more hotly engaged.

Collaboration amongst the Imagists was unusual; rare examples of their ‘exquisite corpse’ composites are displayed at Bexhill. Their group dynamics (loose associations with names like The Hairy Who, The Nonplussed Some, and The Artful Codgers) are chiefly of interest to historians and can be bypassed here in favour of highlighting works by some of the key players. Why the Imagists remain relatively unknown in the UK is something of a mystery to be examined later. What follows is by no means an exhaustive account and is necessarily telegraphic.

1. Jim Nutt

Perhaps the best known of the Imagists. A fan of pinball machines. Chicago was where loads of these were designed and built. Nutt loved their reflective surface sheen and he perfected a technique of ‘reverse’ painting with acrylics on the back of plexiglass panels. His palette is gaudy; his portraits of authoritarian figures like Snooper Trooper (1967) are as grotesquely amusing as those of Otto Dix. I’m not sure if another of his works, She’s Hit (1967), went on to inspire The Birthday Party’s song of the same name but the disturbing imagery of mutilation chimes with the lyric, suggesting the band may have been admirers.

2. Gladys Nilsson

Watercolourist. Wacky works crammed with overlapping limbs and organs, as with the naughtily orgiastic More Fowl Beasts (1970). Imagine a Henry Darger with his Vivian Girls replaced by snakes and pelican-like creatures. Another work not shown here – The Trogens (1967) – has a familiar ring. A gang of big bummed bodies cavorts; many have masked faces, mutating noses, and rubber lips. This vision clearly predates the remarkably similar cacopygian excess of the Blue Meanies in Yellow Submarine (1968). One suspects the Imagists were a key influence on the makers of the Beatles movie.

3. Roger Brown:

Traveller and collector of African Baule and Mexican Guerrero masks as well as the work of self-taught artists: outsiders, like the aforementioned (and fellow Chicagoan) Henry Darger. Brown loved the dimming light of the gloaming as with his flat scenes of domestic life in apartments like The Four Seasons – A Benefit Painting of the Hyde Park Art Center (1974). There’s the voyeur’s delight of Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) in peering into these doll’s house-like other worlds. Brown’s precision drawings are a clear influence on Chris Ware’s cartoon creations.

4. Christina Ramberg:

Like Brown, died way too young. Painted women, their torsos tightly constrained by garments as with Double Hesitation (1977). Ramberg used to watched her mother dressing up and although finding this “fascinating in some ways, I thought it was awful”. Her work is a feminist critique of the societal fetishisms around clothing and the pressures as to how a woman should dress.

5. Ed Paschke

Apparently taught Steve Albini. Another fan of Outsider Art. Liked tattoos and freaks. Often painted grotesquerie as with the spectacularly ugly Elcina (1973) with its luridly jaundiced yellows, its unappetizingly bile greens. These horrors had the chutzpah to challenge accepted notions of ‘good taste’.

6. Barbara Rossi

Was a nun before turning to art. Into textiles and Indian miniature works. Another fan of painting on plexiglass as with Black Rock Top (1972). These fast and bulbous forms recall – to this eye anyway – the sexy biomorphic distortions of early Picabia.

7. Ed Flood

Another collector, this time of shopping bags and advertising packages. Fan of Joseph Cornell after seeing some boxes at the Art Institute of Chicago. Made his own box works. By using multiple layers of painted plexiglass he could create seductive 3-D effects, as with First Nighter (1968), a woman on a stage lit up with spotlights.

8. Karl Wirsum

Loves the Chicago Blues; his Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (1968) – sadly not on show here – was used by the musician as the cover for his 1970 album Because Is In Your Mind. Another fan of comics and Mexican art. His Saw Saw Saw (1966) here is a kandy-kolored tangerine freak-out of a drawing.

9. Suellen Rocca

Doodling style that predated Keith Haring as with Mm… (c.1968), a leatherette purse with oil markings. Like many of the Imagists her work has a Rabelaisian exuberance about the body with all its pleasures and indignities.

10. Sarah Canright

Favoured a pastel palette comprising baby blues, pinks and pistachios as with Double Take (1969) and its wispy cotton candy twists. Picture Georgia O’Keefe trapped in a sweet shop.

Why then are the Imagists relatively unheard of in the UK? Perhaps their lack of pudeur, their unbuttoned Zappa-esque provocation, is antithetical to the clichéd conservatism of the Brits. Seeing these works in hoary Bexhill seems delightfully subversive.

Or maybe their neglect has something to do with changing British attitudes to graphic art. For much of the 20th century comics were regarded here as something for children, the Beano, the Dandy, and suchlike. Americans and other Europeans have regarded the form much more seriously and for far longer.

Maybe too our relative unawareness reflects the fact that we already had our own Pop, our own fetishistic collectors of ephemera transmuted into art, as with Peter Blake and Derek Boshier. Whatever the reasons behind our ignorance the Chicago Imagists at Bexhill is an enlightening story and well worth the trip.

How Chicago! Imagists 19602 & 70s is at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill on Sea, until 8 September

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