Local artist Jim Nutt still imagines, inspires.
“Kids start off life with this immense and unbelievable imagination. As you get older, most people lose that—but Jim Nutt hasn’t,” says Erika Hanner, director of education at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The MCA’s just-opened retrospective “Jim Nutt: Coming Into Character” showcases more than 70 of the local artist’s paintings and drawings, which range from zany to subtle. Given his distinct, doodle-rific style, Hanner says, he “reinforces in kids the value of imagination.”
Kids can get a taste of Nutt’s artwork March 12 at the MCA’s Family Day, free to families with kids 12 and under. Events include a scavenger hunt through the exhibition, plus various “creation stations” encouraging visitors to make Nutt-inspired art. Given his original canvases, the kids should have a blast.
Now a Wilmette resident, Nutt emerged in Hyde Park in the mid-’60s, part of a collective nicknamed Hairy Who, comprising counterculture students from the School of the Art Institute. “He is really, in my mind, the premier artist of his generation,” says MCA curator Lynne Warren. “He’s the one who’s taken the beginnings of what he did and moved steadily forward, to a completely new level.”
“What he did” is faces—lots and lots of faces. They’re mostly women, but the collection includes a few men and even a couple of freaked-out beings that seem beyond gender. None are traditional portraits in Rembrandt or Rockwell modes. (Fair warning: One includes a stray nipple, another a severed limb; still, it’s nothing more shocking than what kids see on The Simpsons.)
Nutt’s creations spring partly from the comic books and advertisements that also inspired Pop Art (although his paintings, particularly his later works, are more accomplished than those of the more-celebrated Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein). We asked Hanner and Warren to weigh in on a few examples that might strike a spark in kids’ eyes.
Her Face Fits (1968).
Hanner: “This crazy red-faced person: Is this an alien? Half-robot? Or are these bandages?”
Warren: “It may not even be a woman, except the title says Her Face Fits. I find this very mysterious and evocative. It’s a good entry into his work, because you can look at it for a long time and see a lot of different things, but you don’t ever know exactly what’s going on.”
Warren: “Here we see a real leap forward in the techniques, with extraordinarily subtle colors shaping the cheeks, mouth, shoulders and arms. He’s really starting to show his chops as a major painter.”
Wee Jim's Black Eye (1986).
Warren: “This is a self-portrait. He’s holding a pencil in this very odd manner, showing himself in front of a painting. The face’s forms are all abstract shapes, but they come together to make a face.”
Hanner: “What’s really so interesting is that this piece and [Her Face Fits, top] are from the same artist. You can see his fantastic range.… There’s a great picture of him with his mother. He’s about three, and she’s in the cool dress with the coiffed hair. There’s some idea that these ladies come from those memories.”
The Jim Nutt exhibit runs through May 29 at the.