Mr. Imagination is a Chicago treasure—in the same rank as Chicago outsider artists Henry Darger and Vivian Maier—and this is his first Chicago retrospective. Raised in Maywood, Gregory Warmack (1948-2012) was shot in the stomach during a mugging and had art-inspiring visions while in a coma. Art dealer Carl Hammer began representing him in 1983 and throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Mr. I achieved national renown, winning major commissions. After a move to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a 2008 fire destroyed his studio (some fire-enhanced pieces are included here). North Siders may remember Mr. I’s studio on Clark with its sign: “Welcome to the World of Mr. Imagination,” the title of the present show. It’s a world of stern playfulness and a street spirituality.
Fundamental to outsider art is making big things out of little things. For Mr. I it was bottle caps, a kind of urban Lego, which he put together obsessively with hammer and nails. Painted plaster was another favored medium out of which he made lumpy, expressive figures. A smartly curated show, objects are grouped according to theme and format—staffs, totems, animal figures (the fish are gorgeous), and magnificent bottle-cap thrones. Wire-mesh dresses are startlingly delicate, and musicians will dig a “Guitar Man.” A giant plaster figure wearing a printing block suit is jaw-dropping. Mr. I’s small paintbrush people are adorable, while his sandstone sculptures resemble Aztec works. “It was like the images were there before I even started carving them,” he said, recalling Michelangelo, “and it was up to me to remove the sand from their eyes.”
A second gallery includes even more of Mr. I’s art, including bottle-cap clothing and smaller works he made for friends. Search for a tiny sandstone pool table named “Ron.” There are also photographs of Mr. I by several artists, among which are the definitive portraits. Cheri Eisenberg’s images of his studio are important, and the portrait by Link Harper is particularly strong. Outsider art is fascinated with its artists—they are works of art after all—and Mr. I was a wonderful world unto himself. (Mark Pohlad)
Through May 25 at Intuit, 756 North Milwaukee