Goldsmiths, University of London, has long been an iconic part of the UK art scene—it was the school that many of the YBAs, Young British Artists, came out of in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Since last year, the university also has its very own arts institution, the Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA). Visiting it is a thrill; the gallery is located in a former Victorian bathhouse that was redesigned by Turner Prize-winners Assemble. As you wander through the airy rooms, you can see artists of tomorrow in the process of creation, since Goldsmiths students’ studios are connected to the gallery.
This connection between the practical and theoretical makes the CCA the perfect location for a show about the Chicago Imagists, a loosely associated group of artists who met in the 1960s and studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Their vibrant and often playful artworks are deeply connected to the city. This exhibition, “How Chicago!” has gathered pieces by Roger Brown, Sarah Canright, Jim Falconer, Ed Flood, Art Green, Philip Hanson, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Ed Paschke, Christina Ramberg, Suellen Rocca, Barbara Rossi, Karl Wirsum, and Ray Yoshida. It’s the first significant UK exhibition of their work in almost 40 years.
The Goldsmiths CCA show connects themes shared between the Imagists and showcases the often hilarious, pun-based comic books that functioned as catalogs for their shows. Even though the art—which often nods to graphic design and cartoon styles—looks modern, it’s very much of a specific period and place. This is evident in a lot of the pieces on display.
“In Roger Brown’s work you can really see the influence of the architecture of Chicago,” says Rosie Cooper, Head of Exhibitions at the De La Warr Pavilion, who curated the exhibition together with Sarah McCrory, Director of Goldsmiths CCA. “He was thinking a lot about the increasing suburban sprawl that was happening in Chicago at that time, and his artwork ‘The Girl’ shows this kind of classic ’60s/’70s suburban architecture, with the city infrastructure and a curving freeway. Brown was quite critical of it, but fascinated by it at the same time.”
The grittiness of Chicago blues music inspired Karl Wirsum, while Jim Nutt perfected a technique of painting on the back of plexiglass that’s normally used in pinball machines, like the ones in the city’s arcades. And Sarah Canright makes Chicago’s industrial smokestacks look almost picturesque in her “Wallpaper with View I.” (Pictured above, on the right.)
At the School of the Art, teachers encouraged the students to look outside of the traditional western canon for inspiration, which created memorable results as the artists were influenced by Chicago’s museums, advertising and street markets. “There are these moments that happen in cities where a particular group of people are experimenting and feeding of each others’ energy and imagination. You can see them in different parts of art history, like Paris at the turn of the century, and many of these moments are really historicized—when you have that kind of perfect storm happen,” Cooper says.
When you don’t have the spotlight on you, you can take more risks
“There’s also something about being outside of the center. When you don’t have the spotlight on you, you can take more risks. New York and LA were the centers for art at this point, so things were happening on each side of the US—and then there was this group of artists making comic books in the middle.”
How Chicago! is a show to savor. Looking at Suellen Rocca’s intricately detailed illustrations, Ed Flood’s wooden boxes filled with layers of painted plexiglass, or Gladys Nilsson’s cartoonish paintings, you can’t help but admire the artists’ breadth of imagination and willingness to experiment with different forms of visual expression. As governments are increasingly limiting art funding, it’s also a well-needed reminder that nourishing creativity yields unexpected, mind-blowing results.
Installation images courtesy of Mark Blower