“Chicago Calling”: A Display of Self-Taught Chicago Artists


With Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors commandeering social media platforms, a type of outsider art has penetrated, albeit covertly, the ivy-covered barricades of the mainstream. The series, an array of rooms filled with misshapen geometries and overwhelming neons, is, unbeknownst to most, inspired by the artist’s hallucinations. While Kusama is a popular name in today’s art world, she has voluntarily lived for nearly four decades in what many deem a marginalized space in contemporary society: a mental hospital.

The notion of “outsider art” is a blurry one. It depends on how you define an “insider” and whether you believe either that people can flow between the inside and outside realms, or that certain factors place someone staunchly in one camp. Although not garnering as intense a following as Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors, the exhibition at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago’s River West neighborhood, titled “Chicago Calling: Art Against the Flow,” serves as a provocative showcase for ten artists who lived and created at the ragged edge of the art world. Like Kusama, they led a life that many would define as existing on the margins. Unlike her, many of these artists never skyrocketed into the kind of worldwide fame Kusame enjoys. However, many now enjoy mainstream, international recognition.

Afflicted by a combination of poverty, mental illness and art world prejudice, the artists in the show–Henry Darger, William Dawson, Lee Godie, Aldo Piacenza, Pauline Simon, Drossos Skylla, Dr. Charles Smith, Gregory Warmack (Mr. Imagination), Wesley Willis, and Joseph Yoakum–were self-taught, giving their artwork a spunky, untraditional flavor.

Yet their creative endeavors are integral pieces in the history of Chicago, a city that has come to pride itself on its historical celebration of “outsider” or “non-mainstream” art. Intuit has played an essential role in this endeavor. Since its informal opening in 1991, Intuit has hosted 130 exhibitions highlighting artists whose work and personal lives remained outside the hard boundaries of the mainstream art world.

The work of eminent outsider artist Henry Darger appears here in the form of several bold watercolor paintings. Born in 1892, Darger, like Kusama, spent several years of his life in an institution. In his case, it was the Asylum for Feeble Minded Children in central Illinois, and this haunted early existence permeates his artwork. Two watercolors, both untitled and placed next to each other, portray swaths of naked young women frolicking in the woods. It is a classic scene somewhat evocative of  Cézanne’s masterpiece, Women Bathing, yet Darger shatters the typical tranquility of the scene by inserting rapacious men who strangle and attack the young women. The result is jarring; a familiar portrayal made brutally violent. Yet, his style of painting is calm, maintaining the playful lines and soft palette in line with the watercolor medium. A satirical ethicality questions: can a horrific act be made beautiful by art?

The colored pencil, crayon, and ink drawings of Joseph Yoakum, also institutionally committed and the most successful artist of the group, serve as a soothing and less morally demanding counterpart to Darger’s shocking scenes. Also utilizing a luscious palette replete with teals, auburns, and soft yellows, Yoakum dismisses scale in favor of line work, presenting compacted landscapes both puzzle-like and immersive. A particularly enchanting piece, Mt. Seple on Walgreen Coast of Marie Birdland, takes on a surrealist quality despite using the strictly classical symbols of trees, mountains, rivers, and suns. Mountains push into perfectly pointed evergreens; a sun with wheelbarrow spokes sets dramatically in a sea of orange. It feels almost like a fairytale land. This is ironic coming from a man who saw much of the real world serving in the horrors of World War I as well as while being part of a traveling circus.

The most evocative work in the exhibition is by Gregory Warmack, a South Side Chicago artist who went by the name of Mr. Imagination. His found material sculptures, made up of bottle caps, buttons, and paint brushes, rival Duchamp’s in their lowbrow functionality. A totem pole sculpture that marks the end of the show’s circular arc, titled Women of Somalia, consists of Black and Brown faces replete with bottle caps, button hairdos and wide, unblinking eyes. The piece is extraordinary, a feat of taking severely average materials and producing something worthy of sitting in a space marked for art. It serves as a symbol for the entire show: good art does not always necessitate fancy materials and studio spaces.

 “Chicago Calling: Art Against the Flow” is a testament to the ways in which artwork, despite flouting conventional methods, can contain a universal emotional appeal. Organized simply, with artwork grouped peripherally across the walls into loose themes such as beauty norms, resistance, and landscapes, the works prioritize feel over tradition. Most paintings lack the gloss of an institutionally-displayed piece; the lines and color palettes feel freer and more whimsical rather than steeped in art history and visual jargon

The only place where the exhibition seemed to falter was in the accompanying wall text. Overwhelmingly plain, the language did not match the vibrant, audacious quality of the artwork. The pairings of artworks sometimes felt forced; the lines whittled down to their simplest forms so as to offer only the smallest amount of context. The accompanying catalogue, however, serves as a robust alternative.

An in-depth curatorial essay by curator Lisa Stone and pithy entries on each artist chip away at the true pulse of self-taught Chicago artists. A remaining issue is that most people who come into the gallery space may not pick up the accompanying catalogue, thus departing with very little additional information. As the artists chosen came from vastly disparate and compelling backgrounds, more information offered via the wall label text would have augmented what is otherwise an extraordinarily visually pleasing—as well as culturally important—exhibition.


Sarah Gabrielle Adler


Sarah Adler is a recent graduate from the University of California, Berkeley. She is currently the gallery assistant at Monique Meloche Gallery, as well as an interpretive planning assistant at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

Mr. Imagination/Gregory Warmack (American, 1948-2012). Untitled (bottle cap frame with paintbrush portraits in niches), 1995. Bottle caps, paint brushes, wood putty, and paint, 31 x 51 x 6 in. Collection of John Cain. Photography by Kenneth Burkhart. Photo courtesy of Intuit.

Joseph Yoakum (American, 1890-1972). Mt. Seple on Walgreen Coast of Marie Birdland, Oct. 3, 1969. Pencil, crayon and Ink on paper, 12 x 18 ¾ in. (30.48 x 47.63 cm). Collection of Robert A. Roth. Photo courtesy of Intuit.

Mr. Imagination/Gregory Warmack (American, 1948-2012). Women of Somalia, 1993. Bottle caps, wood putty, metal, paintbrushes, and paint, 90 x 12 x 10 in. (228.6 x 30.48 x 25.4 cm) Collection of Cleo Wilson



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