JIM NUTT Coming Into Character

MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART, CHICAGO
JANUARY 29 – MAY 29, 2011

Jim Nutt, “Bump” (2008). Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO; Courtesy David Nolan Gallery, New York.

We are told by Jennifer R. Gross, in the catalogue accompanying this focused exhibition of Jim Nutt’s work (even with 70 paintings and drawings it is not a retrospective or a survey), that the artist “has expressed surprise that his unidentified women have been seen as male rather than as the clearly female subjects he intended.” Despite Nutt’s well-documented reserve about anything other than the formal achievements of his work (which is formidable enough to come off as bulletproof), his surprise surprises me. To be clear, this has almost nothing to do with what I see as the restrained androgyny throughout this exhibition, excluding a couple of examples of his early work that are anything but subtle. Instead, it has everything to do with the calmly intricate construction of his work, a serenity that I equate with what has been called, at least since the early 1990s, “realness.”

The “imaginary” portraits comprising most of this exhibition have dominated Nutt’s production since the mid-1980s, but the show presents overwhelming evidence that their seeds were planted in Nutt’s earliest mature work. It takes a while to refocus on the grace of the later work after absorbing the adolescent shock of the paintings from 1966 to 1971, in which malformed creatures are put through the wringer and then some: “Wiggly Woman” (1966), for example, depicts a candy-colored blonde abomination with buttocks on her forehead, a purple tongue that matches other less identifiable sacs and/or sores on the cut-off fragment of her torso, what look like bumpy penises sprouting from two small pairs of lips reflected on the lenses of her stylish sunglasses, and, for good measure, an engagement ring set in the hair above her left eye. Four years later, it gets worse: substantial effort is required to get past interpreting the woman in “Toot-Toot Woo-Woo” (1970) as anything other than a voracious sea-monster who’s still more than capable of damage despite violently severed legs. Before leaving the first room, it’s already time to take a deep breath.

The careful construction of this early work, however, is what remains once the shock wears off, establishing stability within the lunacy. Several were painted on the reverse side of Plexiglas (inspired, we are informed, by the jukeboxes and pinball machines of the 1950s and ’60s), which requires that the final touches be painted first. This procedure initiates what I see as the cosmetic grounding of Nutt’s entire practice, an aesthetic foundation that challenges any superficial notions of what might still be called beauty, especially the kind that comes with an attitude and rigor that even the best drag queen would envy. To that end it is telling—as we learn from curator Lynne Warren’s essay—that Nutt abandoned Plexiglas because when “viewing finished works he would see flaws that should be corrected.” It seems that if Nutt had been less exacting in his early productions he would have had a much more difficult time reversing the direction of his technique, not to mention his imagery.

Therefore, Nutt’s impeccable portraits of the past 25 or so years liberate their subject matter by building something that is pictorially stable on top of all of the unpleasant components of where they began. These paintings thrill, and I’m using that word advisedly, inspired by painter Alexi Worth’s insightful assertion in his catalogue essay (poignantly titled “Unlikenesses”) that, “what matters to Nutt are not real faces but our expectations of faces.” To this I would add that what matters in Nutt’s portraits is that they upend our assumptions of identity by presenting us the realness of painting itself, as his surfaces make the cosmetic structural and vice versa, all the while reinforcing their imaginary images with meticulous doubt. We ask the painting “who are you?” and it asks us the same, and neither of us have a final answer. With that in mind, what I find most remarkable about Nutt’s long-term enterprise is the extreme and contradictory extent to which these paintings embody as much anticipation in their limited format as they do completeness. In other words, despite their self-containment, it’s impossible to predict what the next one will be. The luxury of having many of them on view at once also demonstrates the intrinsic value of slow deliberateness, not only in their production, but also in their development, particularly, as Gross points out, as Nutt’s palette shifted from the moody yet warm browns of the Northern Renaissance (take, for example, the woody richness of “Whisk” (1999)) to biting Sienese pastels (as in “Bump” (2008)). What’s next? These are paintings that leave me with hope, and hope, in the end, is exactly what realness must provide if it is going to keep us human.

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Terry R. Myers

TERRY MYERS is a Professor and Chair of Painting and Drawing at the School of the Art of Chicago.