The Chicago Imagists comprised a group of fourteen artists working together in Chicago during the 1960s and 1970s. Having all studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, their work can broadly be characterised as cartoonish, comedic and at times grotesque. The Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art is now presenting the first UK exhibition of their work for four decades, comprising painting, sculpture, drawing and printmaking.
HOW CHICAGO! is a vast and comprehensive exhibition, covering three floors and various media. The fourteen artists within the group illustrate a move away from the consumerist spirit behind pop art; instead steering themselves towards humour, celebrating garish colours, twisted ideals of beauty and a mutated celebration of American life. Perhaps one of the most striking images within the display is Ed Paschke’s Elcina (oil on canvas, 1973). This fabulous figure has been painted with yellow skin and luminous green hair. Just as terrifying as she is captivating, this striking showgirl echoes America’s gaudy entertainment industry, with her warm skin colour reflecting the brash colours of TV transmissions at the time. Paschke was nicknamed Mr Chicago and known for his lurid images of party girls and pin ups. His 1969 painting Mighty Mouse (oil on canvas, 1969) frames the cartoon character around wrestling masks and the torso of a green-skinned woman.
This sense of humour runs throughout the exhibition. Jim Nutt’s Snooper Trooper (acrylic on plexiglass, 1967) consists of a cartoonish portrait – similar in style to the 1990s cartoon characters Beavis and Butt-Head – with an elongated nose spluttering snot across the page. The grotesque carries through into Karl Wirsum’s Ice Pick Nick Fisherman (acrylic on wood, 1979), consisting of two painted wooden figures that dangle from the ceiling with screwdrivers driven into their backs. The two male figures do not look like they have been tortured though, and hang as though the victims of an explosive cartoon chase. Another sculpture by Roger Brown – Mask for a Waitress (oil on wood, metal, knives, spoons, forks, mop head, 1974) – looks like the contents of an American diner, fashioned into a head shaped like the infamous blue bouffant made famous by a certain Marge Simpson.
This similarity to Matt Groening’s cartoons – which first saw the light of day in 1987, nearly three decades after the Chicago Imagists became acquainted with each other – continues in Brown’s paintings. The Girl (oil on canvas, 1969) sees a woman fleeing an empty city in the dead of night. The work embodies a sense of deadpan humour and existential despair as she runs past an Egyptian-style obelisk monument. Dressed all in black, she looks mischievous. Perhaps she has committed a crime, but what? Similarly, The Four Seasons – A Benefit Painting of the Hyde Park Art Center (oil on canvas, 1974), conveys a voyeuristic and mysterious atmosphere. Consisting of four panels, each shows the exterior of a building in which parties are taking place after an exhibition opening. In the yellow-lit windows we can see the figures of Brown’s fellow imagists, in a painting that, stylistically at least, would be right at home within an episode of The Simpsons.
At times, the exhibition takes a slightly less look at women. Christine Ramberg’s Diptyque Hair Shoe – Patent Leather Hair (acrylic on Masonite, 1971) shows the back of a head, covered in the same pattern and texture as a shoe exhibited beside it. Philip Hanson’s Light Wrap and Shell Vanity (both acrylic on Masonite panel, 1975-6) also depict a female figure from behind, she is dressed like a showgirl, clutching her hands behind the back of her head. His sculptural Perfume Bottle (acrylic on paper-mache, 1973-4) compliments the paintings, which are embellished with the same bright, feathered paint texture as the costume worn by his performer. Suellen Rocca’s handbags too, add to the female presence within the show. Ah! And Mm (oil on leatherette, 1968), are a pair of small purses covered in yellow embroidery depicting a female face. The words “Ah” and “Mm” replace the eyes, lips, nose and mouth where the woman’s features would be.
Other notable works include Karl Wirsum’s Show Girl I (acrylic on wood, 1969), a blue, big-bosomed, yellow lipstick wearing apparition, staring out at the viewer with big lashes and multicoloured limbs. And, in probably one of the least exaggerated work on display, Jim Falconer’s Untitled (serigraph print on oil-painted linoleum, 1968) includes the work’s original price tag, which is still attached to the frame ($75). The image comes in the form of a silkscreen print mounted on top of flowery linoleum.
There are also a series of exhibition posters designed by the artists on display, showing how they advertised themselves and promoted each other’s work in a style that is just as comical as their paintings.
The Chicago Imagists worked together until the end of the 1970s when many of them moved away, both stylistically and geographically. The Goldsmiths exhibition highlights an era of artists working together to create works reminiscent of comic book heroes and villains. Simultaneously funny and grotesque, the show provides a sense of humour much needed during the current political climate, while also exposing a British audience to a wonderful cohort of Chicago’s most entertaining artists.
How Chicago! Imagists 1960s & 70s is on display at Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art, St James, New Cross, London, SE14 6AD until 26 May 2019, and will then be on display at De La Warr Pavilion between 15 June and 8 September 2019