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Jim Nutt Comes Into Character

By Laura M. Browning in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 17, 2011 5:00PM

The Museum of Contemporary Art recently opened Jim Nutt: Coming Into Character, an exhibit that moves easily between haunting and hilarious with its vivid portraits of imaginary women. Nutt is a Chicago artist and founding member of the surrealist group the Hairy Who, which exhibited at the Hyde Park Art Center in the late 1960s. Although it includes nearly half a century of Nutt’s work, the MCA exhibit is more of a focused retrospective, most of it portraits of imagined women over a period of about 20 years.

It’s impossible not to see traces of Picasso in Nutt’s angular, cock-eyed portraits, but if you look closer, you can see a lot more, like the whisper of Renaissance paintings or modernists like Matisse and Miró.  (Hint: flip through the exhibition catalogue on the reading table at end of the exhibit. We wish they’d included some of these comparisons in the labels, as it’s well worth your time.)

Nutt’s acrylics are rich and evocative and detailed—the images above don’t even start to capture what they’re like in person—and many of the women are placed on solid backgrounds that meld into hand-painted frames, a technique that recalls paintings from centuries past, and many of the drawings and sketches that led to the finished portraits — a nice curatorial touch for anybody interested in the process of creating art.

The exhibit also includes a number of paintings from the Hairy Who era, many of which are painted on materials like the reverse side of Plexiglas—and one is actually on a window shade—and feature perverse and psychedelic subjects in super saturated colors. (With a name like Hairy Who, you’ve got to appreciate their strange sense of humor, but if you don’t, the most graphic paintings are in an adjoining gallery with a parental warning). The precision and vividness of Nutt’s paintings are something you might be more accustomed to seeing in computer-generated art, making his paintings all the more stunning.

Jim Nutt: Coming Into Character is on exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave, through May 29. Admission is $12 for adults and free to all on Tuesdays.