Steeped in the aesthetic lore of folk art, advertising, comic books-especially underground comix-poster art, graffiti and found material, this hallowed (but overlooked) group of alumni and teachers from Chicago’s Art Institute gathered together in the latter stages of the 60’s to establish a loose school of work that resonated with broader national movements (Pop Art blasts from either American coast, conceptualist critiques of an emerging consumerist society) while managing to locate distinctive personal aspects of its own. Colours are bold and brash, irreverent imagery abounds, all wrapped in a sense of play that is wildly liberating and go-for-broke, instrumental instructors generously including non-Western and outsider artists into their syllabi-and straight into their students’ artistic souls. Much of the work radiates with a boisterous DIY-ethos (the self-made posters created for their various exhibitions are a brilliant expressive species unto themselves), a sense of fun and experiment contagious, spilling across several disciplines, from painting to sculpture to drawing to publications to film to ephemera. Unlike many of its contemporaneous fellow circles, in which the dominant paradigm was that of a white male braggadocio with women sidelined or entirely erased from the conversation, the Imagists operated with an unemphatic gender parity, a casual appreciation for both female member and teacher. They often exhibited under droll, impertinent collective names such as Hairy Who, Nonplussed Some, the False Image and Marriage Chicago Style, contravening against the pomposity and strenuous whimsy of the larger schools (in comparison,  much of this work appears positively serene and composed even within its own mania). Christina Ramberg reclaims kink and fetish imagery, transmuting it into a study of female construction, a Bettie Page directing her own story, panelled narratives told in detailed close-ups; Ed Paschke’s canvasses are awash in wanton, lurid, acidhouse colours, his figures in repose post-apocalypse; Jim Nutt’s plexiglass subjects, with their unnerving enamel sheen, break down/blow out to pustular extremes, sum totals of effluvia and bodily discharge, sometimes with a sharp political edge (see Officer E. Doodit); Gladys Nilsson’s and Karl Wirsum’s frames explode with vibrant nightmarish individuals, the psychedelic frenzy of movement and velocity warping coherency of body-the same for Barbara Rossi’s tangled, swirling masses of amorphosity; Ed Flood presents elegantly layered, dimensional plexiglass cabinets of squiggly dispersed lines and curves that suggest fantastical undersea or forest environments. Roger Brown provides the most meditative pieces: deco-ish, visually tidy renderings of landscapes, buildings and people that pulse with pockets of mystery and shadow and private acts. His architecturally tribal Mask For A Waitress is both armor and straitjacket, evoking the weight of servitude. Nilsson provides one of the softer images, as well, a black-and-white illustrated beach idyll of a group of similarly attired women (and the odd glamorous  animal friend!) enjoying a day out. I must admit my shame in never having heard of the Imagists despite living in Chicago for many years, and I am very happy indeed for this opportunity to belatedly make their acquaintance-the sheer energy, verve and joy emanating from the works is impossible to resist. Warhol may have had the monopoly on media attention and notoriety, but Chicago in its own modest, possibly more sensible and breezy way, hosted its own version of the Factory (and it isn’t a great stetch of imagination to envision a young Keith Haring or Jean-Michel Basquiat happening upon the work of a few of these artists and finding their spirits enflamed). Chicago! Imagists 1960s & 70’s runs through 26 May



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