Reimagining Imagism: A Karl Wirsum Retrospective

Who would have guessed that a relatively small 1964 exhibition in Hyde Park Art Center could have launched such a stir? That show, dubbed “The Hairy Who” after the artist collective responsible for its inception, became a landmark for the most celebrated Chicago art movement: Imagism. Supported by art dealers, writers, and collectors connected to HPAC, the movement emerged as a postwar figural phenomenon with Imagist paintings mimicking a certain Pop Art quality, but infusing elements of the bizarre and the mundane in vivid hues. Formed by six young Art Institute graduates, the “Who,” a pun based off popular rock groups of the day, was comprised of painters James Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, and most notably, Karl Wirsum.

Wirsum, a Chicago native, without a doubt has been one of more successful and innovative of the group. The Chicago Cultural Center is currently honoring Wirsum with his first retrospective “Karl Wirsum: Winsome Works(some).” His signature style mixes an appreciation of Andy Warhol’s graphic sensibility and an invariable sense of wit, evident in his paintings and their pun-filled titles. Filling the canvas with vivid, flat colors, Wirsum’s works explore a dialogue between the spectacular and the domestic. Imaginary creatures from outer space mow the lawn. Dopey-looking space men orbit the earth carelessly. Exhibit curator Lanny Silverman eloquently describes the dynamic of his paintings: “His work exists in the buffer zone between real and imaginary, mundane domesticity and superhero powers, day-to-day existence and daydreams.”

“Armpits,” a 1963 acrylic painting with an added touch of fur, exemplifies Wirsum’s unique Imagist values. An absurdly proportioned, redheaded siren with voluptuous curves beyond compare bursts out from an aura of blinding neon light. The monotonous flat use of color gives her the quality of stepping straight out of a comic book. The expression, replete with a jarring smile on her compressed face, is reminiscent of a traumatizing clown straight from a tacky “Killer Klowns” movie. Two fuzzy brunette puffs strategically located on each underarm mock Her overtly advertised character. Its sheer vulgarity suggests the heart of Karl Wirsum’s artistic concern: What is beauty? A figment of society’s values or an odd exchange between the awkward and the poised?

Spanning Wirsum’s forty year career, the variety of paintings on display offers a rich conversation on the nature of beauty. The sources of inspiration stretch from everyday graphic patterns to complex, cross-cultural glyphs and pictorial language. His emphasis on ethnic and tribal art introduces an outsider feel to his work, revealing the utter subjectivity of beauty; but Wirsum’s message is not as simple as the clichéd adage “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” By evoking the grotesque alongside the attractive, he posits that a binary relationship between these opposites is necessary for their own existence. The loaded contrast of the familiar (as seen in his emphasis on graphic arts and advertising) alongside the fantastic, indicative in his experimentation with outsider art, asks the viewer to question image on quite an intimate level.

Beauty with the trimmings of all other social values will continually be examined, re-examined, and then examined some more. The Imagists stand out due to their honed sense of satire and ability to quickly connect two opposites in an awkward, yet amusing fashion. Karl Wirsum broke new ground beyond the legacy of the “The Hairy Who” with a distinct barrage of assorted extremes. Curator Silverman intends for the display to replicate Wirsum’s artistic endeavors: “It is hoped that this exhibition is only a beginning, that it will inspire others to go further, to look behind the masks and surfaces.”

Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St. Through June 24. Monday-Thursday, 8am-7pm; Friday 8am-6pm; Saturday 9am-6pm; Sunday 10am-6pm. For more information, visit