Known for his fantastical invention, biting wit, and distorted figuration, renowned American painter Jim Nutt has focused on portraits of female heads for the past two decades. These imaginary portraits are similar in some ways, yet each is distinctly individual. Jim Nutt: Coming Into Character is a retrospective that emphasizes the development of these important paintings through their precedents in his own work, on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Chicago
, unitl May 29, 2011. Acknowledging the groundswell of interest in this unique Chicago artists work, this is the first major presentation of Nutt in over a decade. The exhibition is organized by MCA Curator Lynne Warren and presents 70 carefully selected paintings and drawings to trace the artists achievements.
Jim Nutts (b.1938) career spans forty-five years, having emerged in the mid-1960s in Chicago as the chief instigator of the irreverent and legendary Hairy Who group, now often considered part of Imagism. These artists were drawn to bizarre imagery, vulgar subject matter, and a palette of rancid colors in jarring combinations. Inspired by popular culture, especially comic books, advertisements, and street signs, Nutts art also explored the formal qualities of historical works of art: Northern European portraiture of the 15th and 16th century; Colonial American painting; the color and line explorations of Henri Matisse and Joan Miro; and the quirky individualism of artists such as John Graham, Max Ernst, Arshille Gorky, and H.C. Westermann.
The second period of his work began in the mid-1980s and continues today, consisting of one motif: portrait-like images of imaginary women. Since 1990, he has focused exclusively on rendering female heads with radically distorted features in sparse line drawings and richly detailed paintings accompanied by customized frames. Working with tiny brushes and thinned acrylic paint, Nutt often spends a year creating a single portrait, which are small and meant to be viewed up close. They are seductive with subtle, shifting colors, yet present sharp edges and hard surfaces. The faces are grotesque, yet their formal and refined presentation allows the viewer to find great beauty in what at first may appear repulsive.
The portraits are traced throughout Jim Nutt: Coming Into Character, beginning with his early work that most commonly featured odd interactions between distorted male and female figures, often painted on the reverse surface of Plexiglas. Nutt also explored the individual female figure early on in his career, with works such as the drawing Wiggly Woman (1966) and the painting Good-bye, Have a Nice Journey!! (1973).
Although the imaginary portraits are similar in format, each work is unique and intriguing with rich opportunities to examine Nutts rare technique weighing and assessing forms, colors, patterns, and textures, as they form into an image. Over the course of more than four decades, Nutt has constantly refined his line and use of color; rethought and perfected his compositions; and paid attention to how the work is framed. The frames for the portrait bust series are painted as carefully as the faces they surround.