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Hairy Hues

The legendary SAIC artist group’s first major museum retrospective is as weird and wiggly as ever.

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“The Trogens” (1967) by Gladys Nilsson. Photographed by John Choi.

A loin, a boot, a string tied around an unidentified bundle: the closer you look, the more details emerge from the images in “Hairy Who? 1966 – 1969,” the first major museum survey of the artist group formed by six then-recent graduates of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). On view through January 2019 at the Art Institute of Chicago, this show, more than any other, deserves an accompanying I-Spy game.  

“Hairy Who” was the name adopted by Jim Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, and Karl Wirsum when they banded together for a 1966 group show at the Hyde Park Art Center. Much of the work from the six shows they mounted over a four-year period is included in this show, as well as the group’s comic book catalogues they made to accompany each exhibition, the lithography plates for its printing, preparatory sketches, and ephemera.

More than five decades have passed since the group’s first show, but their work is still mind-bogglingly weird. While artists in New York were beating a fast retreat away from representation, the Hairy Who prodded the figurative into new, technicolored terrain. Their work is dominated by what might be loosely termed portraiture, but they reference the formal convention only in order to lace its drink. The subjects are imaginary and unspecific, and even when the figure is centered, the composition remains a visual quilt. Suellen Rocca’s figures disappear into drifts of glyph-like shapes; Karl Wirsum’s faces read like terrain maps of pattern. Backgrounds and foregrounds are covered indiscriminately with image fragments, a sort of lowbrow horror vacui that swaps out baroque forms for images lifted from the funnies.

Photo by John Choi.

It is possible to sniff out some in-canon influences on the Hairy Who — namely, Magritte’s displaced objects, simultaneously hovering and looming. Art Green’s paintings of gleaming cannons aimed at ice cream cones are rendered in heavy shadow, tinging the pop culture references with threat. “Le Viol,” Magritte’s painting of a woman with a naked torso where her face should be, was apparently Jim Nutt’s Madonna: he painted the idea repeatedly, sometimes with knife blades or penises emerging from the eyeballs.

The Surrealists look like uptight Academy painters compared to the jittering graphics of the Hairy Who. Their primary influences came from art that was overlooked: comics, picture books, advertisements — even art from “Other Societies.” Under the influence of Whitney Halstead and Ray Yoshida, their professors at the SAIC, the Hairy Who also began to look at the work of self-taught artists like Joseph Yoakum and Lee Godie.

But for a gang of artists who cite self-taught artists as influences, they really knew how to color within the lines. “Hairy Who” shows how frequently these artists worked through an idea in drawings before deploying it in paintings and prints — their images were wiggly and bizarre, but they were also deeply concerned with a fine-tuned craft. Their practices were founded in doodles and exquisite corpse as much as careful revision; their multi-plate color lithography is impeccably registered, the aluminum sides of their paintings highly finished. Like the Surrealists, they are anarchists in their imagery but authoritarians in their mediums:

Photo by John Choi.

The most surprising medium in the show was Jim Nutt’s plexiglass paintings. Although he adopted this technique from pinball machines, it reads like an updated take on the American folk medium of glass painting. Painting on plexiglass entails building an image on the reverse side of the pane, starting with its topmost details and finishing with the background coats. He planned each painting meticulously, through several stages of drawing, then followed an exact plan to make the finished image. (Gladys Nilsson, who also made forays into the medium, painted hers with no plans whatsoever, preferring instead the surprise of seeing an image finished by earlier decisions). 

It is in retrospect how apolitical the Hairy Who was. Seismic events barely permeate the wall texts: the assassination of Martin Luther King on April 4th, 1968, apparently only meant that their second show, which opened the following day, was under crowded. Conceptual art and pop art could also be read as escape hatches from social upheaval, but they look like a lot less fun than the Hairy Who.  

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