Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

Refined Nutt: A Jim Nutt retrospective at Nolan

Jim Nutt: “Trim” and Other Works: 1967 – 2010 at David Nolan Gallery

May 5 – June 26, 2010
527 West 29th Street
New York City, 212-925-6190

Jim Nutt, Trim, 2010. Acrylic on linen with mdf frame, 25-3/8 x 24-3/8 inches.  Courtesy of David Nolan Gallery
Jim Nutt, Trim, 2010. Acrylic on linen with mdf frame, 25-3/8 x 24-3/8 inches. Courtesy of David Nolan Gallery

Jim Nutt is part of the Chicago Imagists group which emerged in the 1960s as a regional version of Pop Art.  His fellows included Ed Paschke, Karl Wirsum, Barbara Rossi, Roger Brown, Suellen Rocca, Christina Ramberg, Ed Flood, Art Green, and Nutt’s wife Gladys Nilsson, almost all of them students of Ray Yoshida’s at the School of the Art Institute. Unlike the New York Pop movement, the Chicago variety took pop culture as a starting point and then diverged in two important ways. First, its focus was on a much darker, more sexually charged imagery such as that found in burlesque photographs, wrestling posters, underground comics, and pinball machines. Second, where the New York variety presented a cool, decidedly non-expressionist style of rendering, Nutt and the other Chicagoans reveled in a controlled but highly personal approach to drawing. Nutt’s earliest work in this mini-retrospective, Miss Sue Port, 1967, in acrylic on Plexiglas, presents an iconic example of this.  Part freak show poster, part Pinball machine glass, it features an electric yellow androgynous personage with one extremely large, pointed breast, bulging cod-piece, truncated arms, a horror show face, and a massive, corseted posterior. A potent cocktail of revulsion and attraction, this is precisely the kind of work that brought the Chicago Imagists to critical attention.

Over time, Nutt diverged from his Pop culture beginnings and the work began a gradual shift to a quieter internal narrative. The hyper-inventive figuration stayed, but Nutt slowly shed overt cultural references. By the early seventies, as represented in this show by the colored pencil drawing There Are Reasons, 1974, , the artist was playing with images of stage sets featuring wildly cavorting and contorted figures enacting sexually overt pantomimes. What followed was a consistent reduction in the amount of secondary information, coupled with an increasing focus on the figure. By the late eighties Nutt had narrowed everything down to isolated, singular, portraits.

The current series of refined women’s heads as presented in the main gallery is experienced as a packed and careful condensation of Nutt’s vision. For while the early works like Miss Sue Port feature tight compositions with dozens of objects and figures (the term horror vacui comes to mind), from a strictly mark-making perspective they are painted with the broadest of strokes. By contrast, in the later paintings the brush strokes are barely the size of an eyelash. Needless to say, making a painting with a brush this tiny requires literally thousands of marks. The result is a little less stuff, but a great deal more information being filled into each picture. This is no doubt part of the reason why Nutt produces but a few paintings a year. Indeed, of the seven drawings and three paintings representing the current work, only five of the drawings are from this year, and only one of the paintings, Trim.

Jim Nutt, Broad Jumper, 1969. Reverse acrylic on Plexiglass, 28 x 26 inches. Courtesy of David Nolan Gallery
Jim Nutt, Broad Jumper, 1969. Reverse acrylic on Plexiglass, 28 x 26 inches. Courtesy of David Nolan Gallery

It is not the process of making the paintings that stands out, but their hard won commitment to seeing. Standing in the main gallery, a quiet yet powerful meditative vibration seems to emanate directly from the works. Nothing is facile in these recent paintings and drawings; every mark is precise, meaningful and clear. This is easiest to discern in the drawings, where brief strong lines delineate a myriad of features and textures against the emptiness of the paper. The paintings have the same intensity of line, and add subtle modulations of color and tone.  In whichever medium, when a female head is depicted, the individuality of the features are intensified, not obfuscated, by the careful abstraction of each nose, eye, ear, and mouth. As in Cubism, the features differentiate within a single picture because they compress many moments into a single image. But there is more to the time compression than that. Nutt’s silent women simultaneously look at us and through us.  Ignoring our pressing gaze, they look unrelentingly inward.