THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
On the heels of an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, Karl Wirsum of the famed Hairy Who collective has new work on view at the recently relocated Corbett vs. Dempsey gallery. The show consists of eight pieces and is accompanied by a short film, which can be viewed in the vault at the rear of the gallery.
Ambrose Bierce wrote in his Devil’s Dictionary that the pun is “a form of wit, to which wise men stoop and fools aspire.” Wirsum embodies the qualities of both in the best ways. Bright colors and graphic lines form cartoonish characters that act out puns and word games. It is not surprising that, in an era where gifs and memes are a primary source of entertainment, a renewed curiosity in the Chicago Imagists has emerged.
Wirsum’s style is greatly influenced not just by humor and comics but also by Mexican art. After attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, along with several other Chicago Imagists, Wirsum spent time in Mexico and was taken by the integration of art into everyday life. Art needn’t to be so serious. The vibrancy of his palette, along with the playful geometry of his patterns, combine to make intricate and humorous beings that go beyond being goofy cartoon characters to be more like totems.
Karl Wirsum, Armageddon, 2018. Acrylic on cut panel.
Courtesy of Corbett vs. Dempsey and the artist.
A common theme among these works is body parts. Eyes, arms, hands and heads all take form, as though the characters are assembled rather than born. Armageddon, a smaller freeform painting on panel, depicts a two-headed, beastly yet feminine being framed by two massive arms. The appendages practically have minds of their own. Small, moon-shaped faces protrude from the arms and stare back into the faces of the two-headed beast. The parts of the whole are acting separately, divisively—the arms are getting out of hand.
Points De Leon on the Point of a Boulder Discovers a Way to Never Get Older has a title that sounds like the start of a dirty limerick. The figure in this piece has only one eye and no arms. He stands teetering on the edge of a cliff. The gesture of the piece is clumsy in a funny way, like the antics of a Minion. Inside the cliff, red, germ-like blobs appear to be crawling up towards the figure in a sort of slow-moving pursuit.
Karl Wirsum, Points De Leon on the Point of a Boulder Discovers a Way to Never Get Older, 2018. Acrylic on cut panel. Courtesy of Corbett vs. Dempsey and the artist.
Natural aspects are combined with figures in another diptych, Geezer Gazing Geyser. The “geezer” sits cradling himself while staring at a large red form that is the Geyser. The style of the Geyser is more decorative than the cliff in Points De Leon. It is more like the abstracted, art brut look of his early work. The figures in these newer cutout panels have a brighter, smoother look to them. Is the Geezer looking back fondly on the Geyser?
Karl Wirsum, Geezer Gazing Geyser, 2018. Courtesy of Corbett vs. Dempsey
and the artist.
Although the pieces are not small, they feel a bit sparse in the wide expanse of Corbett vs Dempsey’s white walls. The free-form works on panel are hung at varied heights, giving them a certain degree of character, but they do not break away from their 2D form.
The film adds much-needed context to the scope of Wirsum’s career and insight into the themes and strategies he employs. Without it, the show would not be as engaging. In the film, dialogue of Wirsum describing his thoughts on art plays over footage of his studio and collection of objects, toys and other gewgaws. He speaks with the same degree of intention about his dental hygiene regimen as he does his creative process. For Wirsum, they are one and the same.
Wirsum asserts that his work is not complicated. But how can one look at a Wirsum piece and not see something deeply cerebral and even autobiographical in the work? Despite the graphic and even cartoonish look to the characters, they are not inviting or even all that much fun. So, if there is no underlying meaning for viewers to glean, what is the point of looking for an extended period?
It is the self-referential nature of the work of the Chicago Imagists that has really set them apart from the New York City pop art scene that developed around the same time. The Hairy Who were not trying to be cool. They were not doing drugs, and despite the strong sexual nature of their work, they were not living like rock stars the way their pop art counterparts were. As a result, they are all still alive and making good work on which we continue to gaze.
“Karl Wirsum,” April 5 – June 22, 2019 at Corbett vs. Dempsey, 2156 West Fulton St., Chicago, IL 60612
Rebecca Memoli is a Chicago-based photographer and curator. She received her BFA from Pratt Institute and her MFA in Photography from Columbia College. Her work has been featured in several national and international group shows. Her latest curatorial project is “The Feeling is Mutual”.
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