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Phyllis Bramson’s Painters at The Art Center in Highland Park

Robin Dluzen

Whether you like it or not, the Chicago figurative tradition is a context through which the art produced in our city is often viewed. The impact of such groups as the Imagists, and the Hairy Who? is not only what comes to mind of those outside of Chicago, but is an undeniable presence in Chicago’s contemporary art scene; the craft, the wit, the idiosyncrasy, and the fearless appropriation of a particular vernacular are components still active, whether in part or whole, of the art we still see in Chicago. Chicago native and painter Phyllis Bramson’s exhibition at Highland Park Art Center, “Tethered to My World, Contemporary Figure Painting:  Location, Chicago,” not only addresses the roots of the figurative Chicago tradition, but documents its proliferation amongst younger generations of the city’s artists as well.

Vernon Fisher, Spectacles, 2006.

The Exhibition

Bramson decided to organize “Tethered to My Word, Contemporary Figure Painting: Location, Chicago,” “out of a certain amount of frustration, feeling that there seemed to be little interest in following this thread these days, in terms of organized exhibitions.” Is this exhibition merely a revival of the city’s heyday, or is it proof that the tradition continues to have a lasting impact on the practices of following generations? Chicago art historian James Yood is an adamant proponent of the aesthetical and conceptual strength of the tradition of the figure in Chicago, citing such artists as Tony Tasset and Jim Lutes as continuing the notion of what he describes as the Chicago treatment of the “human figure under stress.” Paralleling the Pop Art trends in the New York of the 1960s, the Imagists, during the same time period, sought also to look outside the “high art” realms for aesthetics and content. But, Yood elaborates, instead of Pop’s sleek advertising aesthetic, Chicago artists adopted a more blue-collar vernacular, reflective of the city’s industrial environment.

Elizabeth Shreve, The Nature of Bees, 2009.

With such art historical figures such as Ivan Abright, Leon Golub and Peter Saul as touchstones for the basis of the theme, Bramson’s exhibition will include such notable Chicago artists such as Karl Wirsum and Ellen Lanyon. “Each of these artists require[s] the figure as a reference, to chart or map the human condition, always looking for a personal connection. Often presenting multilayered situations that can induce many narrative interpretations, the work in the exhibition may walk along various lines between heartfelt sentiment, irreverence and satire,” states the press release for the exhibition. In addition to the artists historically established in the tradition, those of a younger generation are highlighted as well. Joining Bramson, Lanyon and Wirsum are Andreas Fischer and Scott Anderson broaching the notion of history; Vernon Fisher employing appropriation and found imagery; Kevin Wolff and Adam Scott picturing the figure in fragments; David Sharpe integrating the medium of paint as content; Nicholas Africano giving us the figure in three-dimensions; Anne Harris and Elizabeth Shreve depicting complex notions of the feminine; and Peter Drake, Caleb Weintrub, Julie Farstad, and Judith Raphael exploring the lasting effects of childhood. This wide collection of artists testifies to the range possible in this Chicago figurative tradition both in style and content.

Kevin Wolff, Body Builder, 2008.

The Stigma

During my two years in Chicago, in an institution of higher learning in which a large portion of the instructors present in our halls are the artists who comprise the very roots of the tradition Bramson is addressing, I saw the Imagist aesthetic everywhere, yet no one would talk about it, inside the classroom or otherwise. It became such a troublesome silence that I began to understand that the absence of the Imagist tradition in conversation was deliberate. Why? Yood explains that regionalism, or the dominance of a particular style attached to a particular place, is a “bad word”: something a contemporary artist often doesn’t want to be attributed to making. In a contemporary art context that likes to brand itself a global one, seeming “Chicago-y” while making art in Chicago could potentially be damning to an artist who aspires to show outside the city. Of course, this doesn’t happen to every artist who has spent time making figurative work within the city limits, but it is certainly not an unfounded fear. Yood gives the example of Gladys Nilsson and Elizabeth Murray; both artists are of the same age, beginning careers in the same city and at the same time, but have very different careers. Where one chooses to live has a significant impact on one’s identity: “Place sculpts you,” Yood continues, in regards to his defense of the regionalism attributed to the Chicago figurative tradition.

Adam Scott, Safety Orange, 2010.

When he speaks of the particular attitude of the sort of work which we are discussing, rock-and-roll comes up as a comparison on multiple occasions. Chicago’s status as a second tier art center has given rise to an understanding that Chicago’s attitude is that of “an annoying little brother.” Visually, for example, maybe we can see this adolescent attitude in the visceral distortions in Jim Nutt’s works, the comic book aesthetic of Karl Wirsum, or Christina Ramberg’s decidedly anti-intellectual feminism. In fact, anti-intellectualism could be thought of as an underpinning of the rebellious attitude I’m describing. So maybe, like the rock-and-roll attitude that is still as alive as ever, well after its formative heyday, the rebelliousness, the youthful vigor and the unabashed ambition of Chicago’s figurative tradition will continue to prevail.

Author’s Note: The questions and issues raised and discussed here are a result of my own interest in and experience with the subject and do not necessarily reflect Bramson’s intentions for her exhibition.

The Art Center in Highland Park | 1957 Sheridan Rd. | Highland Park, IL
September 3–October 1, 2010
Opening Reception: September 11, 2010, 6–9 pm