Most of Robert Middaugh's 36 small, whimsical paintings at Printworks (26 on the walls, the others viewable by request) show empty suits posed as if someone were inside. At times a hat hovers over where the head would be, and occasionally you can see hints of a person beneath the fabric--like the well-defined muscles in Strong Suit. In Emperor's New Suit most of the "clothing" is invisible, revealing the body beneath, including a small penis: "I figured emperors are tiny," he says. The idea for the series came to him four years ago, when he began thinking of words and sayings related to clothes: "yellow jacket," for example, and "wolf in sheep's clothing." Often he shows an awareness of how clothing is constructed; as a child, he watched his mother take apart old clothes and sew them into something new.
Born in Chicago in 1935, Middaugh grew up on the south side when there were still farms south of 87th Street. "There was prairie all around, frogs in the spring, crickets in the fall," he says. A loner, he was often teased: "I was considered a sissy because I didn't play baseball and wanted to be an artist." Even then he knew he was attracted to other boys but had no words for what he felt and assumed he was the only one to feel that way. Isolation helped strengthen him as an artist, however: "I didn't feel I was missing anything by working alone." At eight he began roaming the city, visiting the Art Institute with his older sister and the Museum of Science and Industry by himself. "I used to go to the furthest reaches of the museum, very lonely places, rooms set up with machinery," he says. "I found it fascinating to see all that stuff without people around."
After enrolling at the School of the Art Institute in 1960, Middaugh began painting abstracted mythological figures--a "good excuse," he says, "to do as many voluptuous males as females." By 1970 he was shifting to paintings of fantasy buildings--a preoccupation since childhood, when he'd drawn fanciful deco-style buildings and ice cream parlors. ("I thought it would be fun to eat all the ice cream I wanted," he says.) He's done precisionist architectural paintings ever since, and later added depictions of science experiments--tubes and beakers on tables, for example--some of which can be seen at Printworks. Middaugh also collects objects: Orbiting Spheres is a grid of six plastic balls he thinks he bought at a yard sale, and in Conductor, a hand pointing to a bottle was inspired by pointing hands in century-old Sears catalogs. "Like a lot of artists," he says, "my whole life is observing things." If he sees something on the curb, and "it's a really weird shape or really odd thing, I just have to have it. As a boy I had shoe boxes full of the strangest things, bones and snake skins. I had a box of dried peas because I was fascinated by their colors." A recent transplant from Chicago to Burlington, Iowa, he plans to cover one wall of his new home with carved-wood valve molds he found at an abandoned factory.
Middaugh's "Suits" paintings are often surreal and funny. Plumes of smoke puff out of Smoking Jacket, and Pinstripe Suit shows pins stuck in the stripes, "done with a Prismacolor pencil," he says, "so they're shiny like pins." He painted the teeth in Shark Skin Suit from sharks' teeth he's collected. Blueprint Suit reflects years he spent archiving blueprints for the Chicago Park District and drawing blueprints of gas stations for Texaco. He admires the suits worn in old daguerreotypes, the suits on sale in old catalogs, and the novelty suits constructed by his friend, artist Nick Cave (now on display at the Chicago Cultural Center--see listing). The most striking thing about Middaugh's suits, of course, is that there are no people in them; like his paintings of buildings and experiments, these works seem the observations of a loner.
When: Through 5/27
Where: Printworks, 311 W. Superior, #105
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Fred Camper.