MCA hosts Jim Nutt companion exhibit

By Matt Watson

Images of surrealistic women with deformed noses and zippers for teeth contrast with the plain white walls of the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave. Patrons cock their heads as they look at a frame filled with a half-man, half-woman wearing a Mariachi coat in front of a

rainbow backdrop.

“Seeing is a Kind of Thinking,” which opened at the MCA on Jan. 29 and runs until May 29, is a companion exhibit to “Jim Nutt: Coming into Character” showcasing works from imagist and surrealist artists such as Karl Wirsum and Robert Lostutter.

Nutt was part of a group of Chicago artists who called themselves the Hairy Who in the late 1960s. These artists, including Art Green, Gladys Nilsson and James Falconer, sought to differentiate themselves from the New York art scene with grotesque and surrealist images.

“On a historical art level, they provided this very immediate, very staunch opposition to what was fashionable at this time, particularly in New York,” said Paul Nudd, an artist featured in the companion exhibit.

According to Julie Rodrigues Widholm, associate curator at the MCA who organized “Seeing is a Kind of Thinking,” the exhibit is unique because it’s based on Nutt’s work but contains many different styles of art outside of his imagist brand.

“We thought it would be great to have a companion exhibit that could help contextualize his work in some way or another,” Rodrigues Widholm said. “It exemplifies how lots of other artists are adjusting some of the similar themes Jim has been working with.”

“Seeing is a Kind of Thinking” reflected the imagist movement’s progression through time. It featured three eras of artists: earlier ’30s and ’40s work that inspired Nutt, the Hairy Who and Nutt’s peers from that time and recent artists who looked to Nutt for inspiration, such as Eric Lebofsky. The exhibit displayed works from approximately 50 different artists—20 of them local.

Erin Baldwin, media representative for the MCA, said most of the art came from the MCA collection, supplemented with borrowed work from

private collections.

“It reflects our history and who we are [at the MCA], and I think the way we combined them is very idiosyncratic and different,” Rodrigues Widholm said.

The exhibit is broken into four themed sections based on artistic style and inspiration.

“The overarching theme, which connects with the title, is the act of seeing,” Rodrigues Widholm said. “It shows how seeing and looking is a visual and intellectual act. I’m charging the audience with understanding how it relates to other works in the gallery.”

Nutt’s signature work is the “bust portrait” genre of surrealist women’s faces and is featured in one of the exhibit’s sections with artists like Ed Paschke and George Condo. Rodrigues Widholm calls another section “the psyche of Eros.” This was inspired by Nutt’s earlier work, which is more graphic and cartoonish and features a lot of play between male and female figures, sometimes sexual, sometimes grotesque.

“It’s a kind of visual cacophony, as you walk through and inundate with all this swirling, visual material that kind of relates to each other, very directly in some ways, psychologically in others,” Rodrigues Widholm said.

The third theme is architectural form. It was inspired by Nutt’s meticulous work ethic and how he composes his forms in the most architectural, deliberate kind of way, Rodrigues Widholm said.

The final part, “looking out by art,” examined how artists look at Renaissance, non-Western, comics and other forms of art to inspire them.

“It wasn’t an overly intellectualized exhibition,” Rodrigues Widholm said. “It was more about expression, personal language and personal artistic vocabulary.”

While “Seeing is a Kind of Thinking” spans almost a century of art and features artists from around the globe, Chicago has bragging rights to the imagist movement.

Lebofsky, who moved to Chicago to study under Nutt at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has six pieces in the exhibit, said Chicago had a unique impact on

this movement.

“I think it’s because the winters are so long here,” Lebofsky said. “It’s a town that encourages imaginative insularity. It’s very evident there are a lot of quirky artists here, and I think it’s because people are indoors most of the year.”