In 1995, Lynne Warren curated “Art in Chicago, 1945-1995” at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Controversial as all such projects must be, it has yet to be dislodged as the final word on the local art of that period. At the heart of that exhibition was a section called “The Entry of the Imagists into Chicago, 1966-1976,” in reference to Roger Brown’s “The Entry of Christ into Chicago in 1976,” which in turn quoted James Ensor’s “Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889.” The Imagists as introduced, described and identified by local critic and historian Franz Schulze in the 1970s, continue to stand for what is Chicago-like about Chicago art. But what happened to that movement after 1976?
As Schulze asserted in “Made in Chicago: A Revisionary View” in Art in America in 1983, the painters who followed Brown, Paschke and the Hairy Who were more to be “pitied” than celebrated. They had failed to “grow beyond a bumptious but callow first statement to something more existentially importunate than the run-on sniggering salon joke, the stylish mannerist pose, the impotent world view.” What could a transgressive art practice accomplish once it had become the new normal? It can hardly still appear fresh and provocative. Minimalism, French theory and conceptual art were moving into Chicago’s art schools and journals. Already recognized by the mid-nineties, Chicago’s most celebrated painter of the twenty-first century, Kerry James Marshall, was taking the human figure, specifically the black human figure, in a more positive and naturalistic direction. Gender, race and ethnic identity had become more important than rebellious antics of aging white adolescents. Even if the Hairy Who have finally received their long overdue recognition by the Art Institute of Chicago, the third generation of Imagists are now nearly as marginal as all the other traditions of figure painting in the city. At long last, this show pushes them into the spotlight—at least through the end of this year.
There’s so much variety among the pieces, it’s often not clear what they have in common with each other, much less the Imagists who preceded them. They seem to share a sad sense that something is wrong. Jim Lutes’ “Desert Boy” has butt cheeks where his forehead should be. Guess he’s not very bright. There’s a small, awkward sketch of a crouching human figure in “Landscape with Fern” by Susanne Doremus, hopelessly lost in an abstract expressive painting. The man-boy in Tony Phillips’ “The Space Between” has grasped the tail of his flying toy airplane but it’s not likely he will ever catch up with the grim-faced woman who is leaving him as well as the picture plane. In “Tears,” by Eleanor Spiess-Ferris, a woman has filled over a dozen tea cups by weeping into them—though it may be just a phony performance. The over-muscled male figures in Michiko Itatani’s “High Point Contact No. 2” seem to have begun their lives floating high up on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Now they’re grotesque and barely able to cling to a free-standing screen on the gallery floor.
Taken together, the work seems appropriate for Chicago at the end of the last century. Life may have been relatively easy for those with a certain family background—but it was also without any transcendent purpose. The pieces reflect Midwestern virtues by feeling honest and well made. There are a few pieces, however, that have the visual presence to demand attention in the vicinity of other kinds of art. With its manic intensity of carefully placed, Bruegel-like details, Mary Lou Zelazny’s “Slumber Party” is one of those. Another is Phyllis Bramson’s “Acts of Ardor.” Its hysterical sexual anxiety may be adolescent, but the impression left is also quite real and disturbing. Even more adolescent and more disturbing is Paul Lamantia’s “False Prophets.” Sadly, it also prophesies the Situation Room in the White House. An angry man with a 1950s television set for a head screams at his pointy-headed henchmen. Its deafening volume blasts across the gallery.
Was the third generation of Imagists disappointing compared to the first two? This show may be the best opportunity yet to consider such a judgment. The best pieces of all three compare well. Their differences have been well-summarized by James Yood in exhibition signage. But they might not compare so well with distant historical antecedents, like the James Ensor piece mentioned above. That 1888 painting could also be seen as humorous, provocative or even sacrilegious. But the gravitas of its formal power echoes a thousand years of sacred European art. The Chicago Imagists reflect a hundred years of American illustration and cartooning. That tradition can also be effective—but much less seems to be at stake. And none of them show any interest in life as a responsible adult. (Chris Miller)
“What Came After: Figurative Painting in Chicago 1978-1998” is on view at the Elmhurst Art Museum, 150 Cottage Hill, Elmhurst, through January 12, 2020.