THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
In the 1970s, art dealers began opening galleries in the River North neighborhood. Among those pioneers of Chicago art culture was Carl Hammer. This fall marks the 40th anniversary of his eponymous gallery. “LEGENDARY,” the exhibition currently on view, includes works from Hammer’s collection curated to tell a broad story of Chicago art as it has grown through the years into a unique pocket in America’s Midwest.
Carl Hammer Gallery deals primarily with outsider art, but it also represents several career artists. “LEGENDARY” does a good job of mixing outsider and formally trained artists throughout the main gallery and second floor.
The ground floor space shows off some of the heavy hitters: Darger, Paschke, Traylor, Yoakum, Yoshida and Rosofsky. There is a wide range of experience and education among the artists, but the level of training does not dictate the impact of the work. By juxtaposing Paschke and Yoshida with Darger, the show allows viewers to compare the use of found materials and appropriated imagery.
Darger’s work is masterful and horrifying. The rawness of the subject matter and underlying themes of child abuse combined with intricately composed imagery and storytelling elicit an abject reaction to the work. It was created without the boundaries of audience judgment in mind because it was never intended to have an audience. That freedom of the artist from the audience created a space for Darger to work out some dark and disturbing demons.
The biggest outsider art star in the exhibition next to Darger is Bill Traylor. Traylor’s work was recently on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “LEGENDARY” includes two of Traylor’s mixed-media paintings on found cardboard. The figures in both pieces are gestural and narrative, telling a story about a man in a hat and a woman who is pointing at him. There’s humor in the playful way that space is used in these works. In Untitled woman pointing, the man, though standing at eye level, is a full head shorter than the woman. Although his gesture, hands on hips, is one of confrontation, the woman is the more dominant figure.
Traylor’s dark, gestural figures are influential in works of several American artists like Chicago muralist William Walker and in Kara Walker’s (no relation) black paper silhouettes. All three artists make art that reflects a narrative of black experience in America.
Joseph Yoakum is an artist’s artist. Although lesser known, his work can be found in the collection of artists like David Sharpe, whose work is also exhibited in “LEGENDARY.” Yoakum’s landscapes are graphic and almost cartoonish, with a richness in color that makes the work read as a hybrid comic book panel and naturalist sketch. The location of the scene is included in ink on the front of the piece.
The drawing Southwest Point of Qzark Mtn Range Near Carthage Missouri is on brown paper in colored pencil. The highlights and colors of the clouds and trees are developed through the addition of white pencil to the mid-tone of the paper’s surface. The paper becomes a player in the landscape rather than simply the base on which the image rests.
With the works hung next to each other, a connection can be made between Yoakum’s style and color and Sharpe’s Untitled, Landscape. In contrast, Sharpe’s abstracted landscape gives the sense of space between the elements that compose the work, as though it were a map. The surface quality of the painting becomes an element of the piece. The rocks and trees become parsed down into dots and lines of color that are organized atop the surface of the canvas.
Joseph Yoakum, Southwest Point of Ozark Mtn Range Near Carthage Missouri, c. 1960-75. Colored pencil and pen on paper,
12 x 17 3/4 inches. Photo courtesy of Carl Hammer Gallery.
The second floor is packed with a much more varied collection of art objects and artifacts that connect history and culture. A sideshow banner by painter Snap Wyatt, which is over 10 feet tall, advertises the Lobster Boy “Alive!” The lobster boy is depicted on the beach, with the torso of a child and the tail of a crustacean. He reaches his red claw up towards a beautiful woman in a red bikini.
The works on the second floor follow themes of transformation through the artistic process. In the case, Wyatt’s sideshow banner changes the context in which the audience approaches this human: both as a curiosity and a wonder rather than as a genetic anomaly.
Grady Stiles was the real name of the Lobster Boy. He toured with traveling carnivals as the Lobster Boy along with his family well into the late ‘80s. Stiles, a notorious alcoholic, was convicted of murdering his daughter’s fiancé in 1988 but sentenced to only 15 years of probation due to his physical abnormalities. Enraged by this turn of events, his wife allegedly hired a hitman, and Stiles was murdered in 1992.
Legendary Chicago outsider artist Lee Godie has a spot of wall that includes a painting and two photo booth portraits. Unlike Darger, who was eccentric but reclusive and highly secretive about his work, Godie was anything but reclusive. She became something of a staple on the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Lee Godie, Photobooth self-portraits,
c. 1970-75. Lee with a cameo and chain,
5 x 3 3/4 inches. Photo courtesy of Carl Hammer Gallery.
A self-proclaimed impressionist painter, Godie’s work is also embodied in her personality and feral lifestyle. She hated being indoors and would often be found sleeping outside in sub-zero temperatures despite having saved enough money from art sales to afford a room. In one of the photo booth portraits, Godie wears a white sweater and a Victorian-style cameo. Her ragged hand pulls back fine blonde hair, revealing a demure smile. In this moment, we catch a glimpse of the woman she could have been had that lifestyle suited her.
An overall sense of Americana runs throughout the show, especially on the upper floor, which also features sculptural works by Vanessa German, Neil Goodman and S.L. Jones. Although it does not completely shed its gallery persona, the exhibit has the air of an antique or curiosity shop.
“LEGENDARY” is not the gallery’s 40th anniversary show. That particular exhibition will open in September. This seems more of a tribute to something quite unspecified. It could be redundant to have this exhibition before the anniversary show. The turn of the fall season will tell the tale. The bar is set high but, after 40 years in the trade, there’s bound to be even more remarkable work in Hammer’s collection.
LEGENDARY is on view through August 17th at Carl Hammer Gallery, 740 North Wells St., Chciago, Illinois.
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”.
Bill Traylor, Untitled woman pointing, c. 1940-45. Pencil and watercolor on found cardboard, 14 x 11 inches. Photo courtesy of Carl Hammer Gallery.
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