An Interview with Director Leslie Buchbinder on the New Documentary HAIRY WHO & THE CHICAGO IMAGISTS
By Harrison Sherrod
Harrison Sherrod: Toward the end of your documentary, the curator of the Art Institute suggests that the Imagists shouldn’t necessarily be thought of as a unified collective. What is the benefit of grouping these artists together? Other than a shared time and place, is there something they have in common?
Leslie Buchbinder: This group/non-group issue is always a conundrum for artists of any time and place. The commonalities include the resource materials that they called upon in their work, from the Art Institute, the Field Museum, Maxwell Street, films, cartoons, tattoos, alleyways. Those things all contributed to the works, but they took these source materials and processed them into very different kinds of iconography. There are overlaps of lexicons between these artists, but they’re definitely distinct. Ed Paschke was the only one really into the nightlife, which separates him from the group. They were all dealing with a certain element of fringe. They took popular culture and used it in a very different way than the New York or L.A. artists. For example, Lichtenstein’s riff on cartoons was cool and detached, whereas, to quote Sue Ellen Rocca, “They were cool and we were hot.”
HS: The Imagists are normally relegated to a footnote in textbooks. Why has the traditional art history discourse ignored the Imagists until recently?
LB: Any dialog within any area of discourse – whether its film, art or politics – certain artists or people are privileged. New York was very much the dominant force at that time, and still is to some extent. It’s just how the art world mechanism functions. It’s a dialog about what came before and what people in a given place want to see next. What New York wanted to see next wasn’t what the Imagists wanted to see next. In New York surrealism was so uncool. The feeling was: “We’ve been there, done that, don’t go there.” But in Chicago, it was a different environment where surrealism had always been a very important part of the collector’s world, so these artists were seeing a lot of surrealism and it was being embraced. The reason why these artists are coming to the fore again is because there are so many ways in which what they were doing then is very much a part of the contemporary dialog, whether you’re in New York or Japan. Takashi Murakami, KAWS – all of these people are riffing on the Imagists.
HS: Exactly – artists like Mike Kelly and Paul McCarthy seem to have a very sincere, positivist relationship to mass culture in a way that the pop artists didn’t.
LB: Right. It’s get dirty, funky, and down with it. Get into the ribald aspects, the very dark side of what comics are. To echo John Ruskin, the grotesque has a humorous side to it, but also a profoundly dark side to it. And that quote would apply to the Hairy Who and Chicago Imagists. The power of this kind of art is that, if you’re really addressing it, you can’t escape the extremities of what’s provoked.
HS: Do you feel like the lack of a robust Chicago art scene in the 1970s paradoxically provided the Imagists freedom to experiment irrespective of market forces?
LB: Of course. If you don’t have the klieg lights shinning on you all the time, than you’re going to do what you want. When people go to New York, there are tremendous advantages and there are tremendous disadvantages. As Bernie Sahlins, the co-founder of Second City said, “[in Chicago] you have room to fail, you have room to play, you have room to succeed in ways that aren’t part of the normative conversation.”
HS: Compared to most of the abstract expressionism that was in vogue during the 40s and 50s, Imagist art signaled a return to figurative forms and was remarkably low concept. Do you think the accessibility of the Imagists hurt its cachet?
LB: Here’s the double-edged sword to that: in a way it’s so easily graspable because it’s in your face, but at the same time, there are tremendous subtleties and concerns with formal aspects, but they are there to serve to the subject matter. In New York, it was all about all of the artists saying: “Metaphor is done – let’s deal with form.” That was not the foremost concern of the Imagists. But one of the problems is that people sometimes make the mistake that it’s naive, or uninformed, or doesn’t reflect on art historical references. It’s very smart, but it didn’t wear its intellect on its sleeve.
HS: Several of the Imagists seemed to be associated with underground filmmakers like Tom Palazzolo, who is interviewed in the documentary. Roger Brown has a handful of paintings depicting moviegoing. Is there a link to be made between cinema culture and the visual vocabulary of the Imagists?
LB: Absolutely. Karl Wirsum said, “I always wanted to paint the blues.” Jim Nutt said he always wanted to paint the experience he had while watching film. He wanted to replicate that while making art. They all went to the Clark theater, which was in walking distance from the Art Institute and showed a lot of European films. Roger Brown, Barbara Rossi, and Ed Paschke all worked with different theaters. making different sets and consumes. Live theater and the quietude of film are really important aspects of [the Imagists’] work.
HS: Gary Panter says that the Chicago Imagist aesthetic couldn’t be co-opted even though it relied on the appropriation of pop iconography. Do you agree with his statement?
LB: I think I do agree. For him, everything is contextual in terms of time. The Hairy Who was so important to him as younger artist before his Pee Wee Herman days. One of the things that fascinates a lot of artists like Gary and Chris Ware is the role of the Hairy Who comics. The Hairy Who comics for those 60s shows were early zines. It really offered a different way of relating to an exhibition and to the experience of art. It wasn’t being posed as something grand – it wasn’t being posed at all. The Hairy Who used all of their resources like sausage makers – it was the fat, the grist, the grime.
HS: Chicago seems to be experiencing a moment in the art world. There are nearly twenty local artists feature in current Whitney Biennial. What’s changed since the heyday of the Imagists?
LB: In Chicago the backlash against the Imagists was very strong for a while. We’re much more polyglot now. The discourse seems to be embracing many different things at once. Things that were of interest and rejected are now of interest again.
HS: Can you identify any contemporary artists who you feel are kindred spirits of the Imagists?
LB: Take a look at the After Image exhibit at DePaul Art Museum. There are a lot of young people embracing the Hairy Who and Chicago Imagists. As Amy Cooper and Marc Bell said, “This is the stuff we want to be doing.”
HAIRY WHO & THE CHICAGO IMAGISTS screens at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago on Tuesday, May 20 (but is sold out) and also at Block Cinema (Northwestern University) on Friday, June 6.