Published on March 19th, 2011 | by Danger0
A Hard Jim to Crack: The Artwork of Jim Nutt and Other Legume Related Puns
By Alex Danger Stewart
Dear Beloved Readers,
I recently wrote this for a Critical Art Review assignment in my Art in Chicago Now class. Enjoy.
On January 29th of this year, The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago opened two large scale exhibitions related to the work of the American artist Jim Nutt. The first, Coming into Character is a showcase of Nutt’s artistic evolution over the course of 40 years and focuses largely on Nutt’s female portraiture. The latter is a fairly extensive companion exhibition that shows works that both influenced Nutt and were influenced by him. Seeing Is a Kind of Thinking: A Jim Nutt Companion aims to place Nutt in a specific historical context by present the broader cultural universe which informed Nutt’s aesthetic and artistic philosophy.
Jim Nutt came to prominence in the mid 1960s as a part of Chicago Imagist movement (a term that has been applied retroactively) within the group who dubbed themselves, The Hairy Who.” A very important consideration one must make when viewing or thinking about works from the Chicago Imagist movement is its position as one of the very first visual arts movements in which artistic innovation was centered in and influenced by the city of Chicago. Along with this very ethnic, working class, metropolitan
aura, it is important to note the way in which the Imagists (and especially those within The Hairy Who) incorporated a very comical, irreverent processing of low culture and pulpy art mediums through a synthesis of Art Brut and Surrealism. As somewhat of a reaction to the New York Pop Art scene, The Hairy Who took the idea of repositioning a mass culture visual cue and personalized it; using personal signifiers such as the graphic, cartoony style of pinball machines at a local amusement park (or the tattoos of labor class immigrants) to give their work a more heartfelt edge. In recognizing this innovation, one can see a similar design style in the animating of the cartoon Beavis and Butthead or the illustrations of Magnus Carlsson and recognize the wide reaching influence of an artist like Jim Nutt’s early work.
My visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art took place on a day that was brutally cold. I mention this because it can be a little trying to put oneself in an appreciatory mindset when one’s body is trying to navigate the transition from bracing winds and ear-numbing freeze to the highly regulated, temperate setting of a museum. I’m not necessarily saying that environmental forces made me a bit grumpy which may have caused a harsher reaction than I might have had during a mild spring visit. On the other hand, the environmental forces made me a bit grumpy and judgmental.
Though it includes work spanning his entire career, Coming into Character gives far more focus on Nutt’s series of, imaginary portraits,” which have been his primary means of expression since the mid to late 1980s. I think this repetitious setting actually did some disservice to the portraits. Through a couple dozen paintings and drawings presented on various formats (the assorted media included canvas, linen, fiberboard, cardboard, and metals) Nutt’s work shows the minute exploration of an expressionistic female head and shoulders. Common forms are repeated in the nose, brow, and posture of each portrait while color, hair, and expression vary wildly from one figure to the next. My pretentious assessment of the reoccurring forms is that Nutt may have been using the fictional females to express an embodiment of changing characterizations within some unnamed person’s psyche (perhaps the author himself?). There is no indication of this theme anywhere in the literature, which suggests that I’m probably far off the mark.
One particular painting within this series that caught my eye in a strong way was a recent work called Trim. Finished in 2010, Trim is acrylic paint on linen and a fiberboard frame. It is a smaller portrait that is nearly square in shape (25 3/8” X 24 3/8”). The actual pictorial aspect of the piece is even smaller, resting several inches from the border of the frame. This has the effect of drawing the eye inward and requiring the viewer to approach the piece in order to view from a very close vantage point. The portrait is filled with cool greens and blues and the ¾ profile depiction of a pale woman painted with mostly rigid, graphic inspired lines. She wears a shirt that is covered by an elliptical dot print. Her prominent, angular nose is covered with a similar print and has great, dark drips running from the bridge to the tip. The woman’s eyes stare straight out at the viewer, their different colored retinas holding a slightly, Hi there,” gleam while the blasÃ© position of her mouth and a slightly tilted eyebrows suggest that she’s a bit too cool to be caught worrying about some sort of nasal deformity. Oh this,” she mutters, This is just a fashion statement.”
Something that I enjoyed about Trim (and that made it stand out from the pack) is this seeming harmony in theme. I obviously can’t speak to whether or not the piece was created with any intended thematic elements. Unlike some of Nutt’s early work like the painting Hee-Man (in which he poked fun at notions of masculinity by pushing then to vulgar extremes) any symbolism that exists within the, imaginary portraits,” does so on a more subtle level. Certainly the most obvious thought to have while viewing such a work is, What is she thinking?” Then the brain begins to spitfire, She’s bored and wants to get back to applying the thick makeup that makes the lower half of her face so pale.”
She actually does seem pretty cool. I like her choppy haircut.”
Maybe she’s shy and that furrow of the brow is discomfort.”
I wonder if a puppy is involved in this.”
Though the options of personal interpretation are clearly almost limitless, an overriding element of reserved, detached feeling runs through almost all options. Even on such a broad theme, Nutt may not have left the cultural references of his early career entirely behind. With such a combination of color and expression, I don’t feel remiss in drawing slight lines of influence to mid era Henri Matisse and his use of restrained blues, greens and greys. It’s not a great leap from Trim to a work like Matisse’s Woman in Green.
A fault I did find within the Exhibit was what I found to be an over repetition of the aforementioned imaginary portraits. I would venture to guess that having so many similar pieces placed next to each other causes a blurring of the mind, with thoughts of each piece squishing into the next one until they all end up a big pile of, hmm, that’s pretty good.” Were I to encounter Trim on its own or near one or two other similar works, I do believe its beauty would have been far more striking.
Coming into Character will continue to run at The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago until May 29 of this year.