Jim Nutt: Coming into Character

Museum of Contemporary ArtJim Nutt: Coming into Character

January 29th – May 29th

Making Chicago wait ten years for an informative retrospective on world renowned artist, and Chicagoan, Jim Nutt seems almost cruel. Yet, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) has made it worth the wait with the exhibit Jim Nutt:  Coming into Character. (Even crueler, the show ends May 29th!)

jim nutt exhibit
Trim (2010)

Nutt’s body of work spans over 45 years, and counting, yet, Coming into Character concentrates on Nutt’s work from the last 20-25 years to the present.  Long departed from his signature plexiglass works that propelled him into stardom, Nutt has been exclusively composing highly detailed and “imaginary” looking female busts on linen.  These women are not so much distorted as they are enhanced and reduced with vibrant colors, bulbous noses, and other various elements found in cubist and surrealist works, a la Dali, Picasso, Klee, and Guston. But it isn’t so much guessing which artist or movement has inspired Nutt to produce these works, rather it’s about discovering Nutt’s inner evolution as an artist.

jim nutt coming into character
Snooper Trooper (1967)

The works, small in size and simple looking from afar, require the viewer to get up close to notice the complicated patterns and color layers that make-up a painting that took upwards from a year to produce.  With all the details and time that go into these pieces, Nutt has also created a contradiction of sorts, adding looming, minimalistic backgrounds. By putting these women in some sort of monochromatic purgatory, leaving his figures completely isolated, Nutt doesn’t allow us to become over stimulated, instead he helps us focus on the subtle details that lie within the composition.

jim nutt coming into character
Good-Bys, Have a Nice Journey!! (1973)

“Plumb” (2004) seems almost like homage to his past works. A woman, seemingly half-animal, half-human, is fit with a fringe of dark hair around her neck and a hair-do that resembles the ears of a basset hound, calling out the misshapen and beastly forms Nutt produced earlier in his career.“Trim” (2010) presents us with a Dali-esque red head with a deeply intricate, multi-colored nose that almost acts as a window to another universe, giving the viewer a place to get lost in.

Most of these works are accompanied by pencil studies, which helps us understand what Nutt was thinking from when inspiration hit to when it was time to get down to business. Looking closely at these you will notice parts that have been erased, giving way to Nutt’s pursuit of perfect draftsmanship. The installation of these studies makes for a nice contrast to the highly polished and meticulously crafted paintings they end up becoming.

The MCA has also given great consideration to those who are still hungry for Nutt’s earlier work. Most notably “Snooper Trooper” (1967), a half diptych, built with a collage of paper and aluminum on plexiglass, features a perverted authoritarian of sorts staring quite sinfully at the viewer.  Acting as a portent to what Nutt will produce in the future, “Good-Bye, Have a Nice Journey!!” (1973), is an intimidating and oversized piece featuring a vain-filled female head, with geometric forms, not unlike what Nutt is producing today.

The MCA has also assembled a separate exhibit, directly across from Coming into Character, showcasing works of other artists that have either been inspired or have utilized the same artistic elements as Nutt. The exhibit: Seeing Is a Kind of Thinking: A Jim Nutt Companion arranges works from the innocent and perceptive landscapes of Joseph Yoakum, to newer pop-surrealist artists like Eric Lebofsky and all points in between.  I’d highly suggest taking in both exhibits as they both work together in reinforcing the ideal that all art, no matter the genre or medium, share one common goal…invoking thought.

There’s and old adage, “It’s all in the presentation.”, and the MCA could not have done a better job taking that to heart. Nutt’s figure paintings by themselves would end up growing somewhat tedious and repetitive, but with a strategic installation of Nutt’s earlier works, sketches, and a complimentary exhibit you’ll end up thanking the last MCA employee you see before walking out the door.

Note: The hard bound, cloth covered exhibit catalog is a nice keepsake that’s worth the purchase.

Highly Recommended

John B. Reinhardt


Museum of Contemporary Art / 220 E. Chicago Ave. Chicago, IL 60611/ running thru Jan. 29th– May 29th, 2011/ Monday: closed / Tuesday: 10am – 8pm / Weds. – Sun: 10am-5pm / suggested $12 admission / $7 with student ID and seniors / free all day, every Tuesday


Leave a Reply