Elements of surrealism, Pop Art offer surprises at Madison exhibition of Chicago Imagists

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Art Green’s “Regulatory Body,” 1969.

Art Green’s “Regulatory Body,” 1969. – Photo: Courtesy

There is an old cliché of the artist as a solitary type, a reclusive soul starving alone in a garret while creating masterpieces. But there are many moments in art history when groups of artists came together collectively, and while not necessarily following lockstep in terms of style, they operated together under a single banner at least for a while.

“Chicago Imagists at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art” explores one creative coterie with more than 75 works in various media, including painting, drawing, prints, and some interesting pieces of ephemera and videos. The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art has amassed a substantial collection in its own right, particularly through gifts from University of Wisconsin professor Bill McClain, the Kohler Foundation Inc., the Raymond K. Yoshida Living Trust and other donors.

Ray Yoshida was one of the mainstays of the Chicago art scene, an influential teacher to many of the Imagists, and a member of the group exhibiting under the moniker “The Hairy Who.” The heyday of the Chicago Imagists was the late 1960s and early 1970s, but their binding ties were less about a prescribed style than common interests. Many of the artists were Chicago natives and had affiliations with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Imagists rose after the 1950s, which were dominated by the New York School’s muscular Abstract Expressionism, exemplified by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, and in the wake of the snappy stylings of Pop Art. The Imagists looked outside of traditional high art realms for influences and sources, drawing from ordinary life, lowbrow humor, and what Yoshida called “trash treasures.”

Visually, there are crossover elements with the tendencies of Pop Art. Bright colors, crisp lines and recognizable imagery show up in paintings such as Art Green’s “Regulatory Body.” A delectable ice cream cone balances on its pointed end like a monumental sculpture, inexplicably poised between curtains pulled back to reveal a conventional architectural alcove. It gets stranger with the appearance of mechanical gears and implements, gleaming with precision and foreboding. The night sky appears to shimmer in the peeled-back lower right corner.

If this sounds surrealistic, that is an accurate assessment. Works by Jim Nutt play up the surrealist angle even more in paintings like “Toot ’n Toe.” Disembodied female body parts float around a cartoonish nude male, a sort of satirical sexuality implied. The compositional direction is reminiscent of Salvador Dali’s “Little Cinders” but translated through an aesthetic closer to Mad Magazine.

Other artists, such as Roger Brown, incorporate a more minimalist approach with selective and crisp lines. Brown’s 1972 work called “Sudden Avalanche” is a freeze-frame disaster. Cool and sharp, the contrast of light and shadow belies the frantic body language of figures succumbing to snow.

The museum offers a bonus with the complementary exhibition “Chicago School: Imagists in Context.” Located on the ground floor, it may be the exhibition to first command your attention as you enter the museum. But it might be useful to hold off on this one until after viewing the main Imagists show. The scope of the “Imagists in Context” exhibition is broad, and as noted by the exhibition description, includes artists who are “geographically, philosophically and artistically associated with the Imagists.”

Given those criteria, this casts a pretty wide net. But, it also opens up some interesting surprises and contemporaries. Artists associated with other groups, such as Monster Roster, are well represented.

A standout piece by Nancy Spero and Leon Golub is their collaborative “They Will Torture You, My Friend.” This print comes from the portfolio “Conspiracy: The Artist as Witness,” a project done in 1971 to raise funds for the legal defense of the Chicago Eight (who faced charges stemming from protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention). It’s a strong example of art that is specific to time and place, operating on an important level of aesthetics and social awareness.

Both of these exhibitions are major events for the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. To augment the visuals, a spate of lectures and presentations are planned for the coming months. “Chicago Imagists at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art” closes on Jan. 15, 2012, and “Chicago School: Imagists in Context” closes on Dec. 30, 2011.