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The Inscrutable Nutt

These Parts/Milwaukee, WI

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JIM NUTT

at the Milwaukee Art Museum, through August 28

What becomes an artist most? A retrospective? While not reserved to those advanced in years--Jim Nutt had his first at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1974, when he was 36--retrospectives usually sum up work that has some currency in the culture at large. Organized with an astute curatorial eye (which can range from an intensely historical or theoretical vision to the often-underestimated simple delight of "Boy, look at this!"), a retro can be revealing. As the extensive catalog for Nutt's retrospective at the Milwaukee Art Museum shows, one might place him in a line with other Chicago painters as diverse as Ivan Albright and Leon Golub and, by varying degrees of intimacy, relate his work to the entire Imagist group--of which he is of course a charter member. But beyond these links, beyond the mapping of causal relationships and suspected influences, Nutt stands unassailable on his own personally surveyed, very solid ground.

Hardly unknown, Nutt's work is wonderfully, startlingly inscrutable. One might make the same claim for abstract art generally or the conceptual conceits of Mike Kelly and his kind. But the "difficulty" in Nutt devolves, in good measure, from his ongoing transmogrification of the human figure. What about de Kooning's vehement women and the livid flesh of Lucian Freud? In a year when art world institutions have focused attention on the former, MAM has made a generational and aesthetic leap in examining Nutt's oeuvre, which remains singularly figurative and boldly nonillusional.

Nutt's tweaking of form induces in the viewer a kind of waking REM, a frantic scanning to resolve the constellation of disparate images. His perversions of shape, visual disjunctions, and the dark circus of human relationships he depicts indicate an unusual candor, a formidable formal control, and a well-thought-out weirdness. From the gaudy cartoonishness and manufactured quality of the early pieces on Plexiglas to the oddly populated settings of the 70s to the nearly iconic portraits of recent years, the work is executed in true painterly fashion, as isolated planes of perception--pictures on a gallery wall.

Nutt rarely discusses his work. No overblown artspeak for him, no inflated discussions of the artist's place in society, no important pronouncements on his own processes. Engaging in an opening-night Q&A with Russell Bowman, MAM's director and the curator of the exhibition, the longtime Chicagoan suggested that his creative life is intuitive, colored by the random experiences of life as much as--or more than--it is by the intellect or a strict agenda. He admitted that comic strips and comic books "were a part of my life as a young person," but reminded listeners that by the time the earliest pieces in the show were done, "I'd spent seven or eight years doing nothing but looking at art day in and day out." When asked about his interest in German expressionism, Nutt compared it to "discovering somewhere along the line that you like chocolate or vanilla." Disingenuous? It didn't appear so. He seemed baffled by Bowman's characterization of his work as violent or grotesque, reserving such terms for depictions of violence rather than the way paint is put to canvas. Tough to argue that. As for the sexually charged confrontations evident in so much of the work (huge women, small men, bladelike breasts, flayed erect penises), the artist remarked, "Sometimes I'm surprised how literally people take the imagery."

But familiarity breeds confusion. Representational rather than abstract, Nutt's images seem to signal content, to lay out some comprehensible, if crazy, story line. The 1968 Ethelinthesalads shows a woman with a mannish, green-nailed hand sucking her own breastlike elbow. Cotton Mouth (1968) is a male head painted green, with a gin-blossom nose and a mouth of cotton balls wedged below the Plexiglas. One of the better-known works from a little later, Running Wild (1969-'70), is marked at the top with the word "glass"; "room" is written in a snakelike script at the lower edge of the frame. The central image (if such an idea even sticks to a Nutt) is a woman wearing an aloha blouse in a palm-tree pattern. With an arm like the limb of a praying mantis, she snags the yellow flesh of an enormous phallus. Painted on the frame itself is a crudely limned knife inscribed with severed fingers.

The whole man gets even nastier treatment in Summer Salt (1970), which combines an inventively configured picture plane with grossly comic imagery. The title is written on a yellow valance; the picture is painted on a window shade that hangs over a blue panel. A seated male, blindfolded and bound, sports a collar of thick blood and an erect member that seems to hover outside his leopard-print briefs. Smaller, boxed images (paintings within the painting) represent trouser legs caught in mid-stride, a finger, a glass shard, and a reptilian tail. In the drawing Hee Hee (1975) a big nude woman holds a diminutive man aloft in one hand and tickles or pinches his balls (perfect for the cover of a Camille Paglia book).

The battle of the sexes is even more of a spectator sport when Nutt's characters tread the boards. In You're Giving Me Trouble (1974), a man prances across a stage against a white-noise zigzag background (a commedia dell'arte character with a prick like vieja ropa) offering a tiny glowing cone to a somewhat smaller female half-hidden by the proscenium curtain. I'd Rather Stay (On the Other Hand), a large oil from 1975-'76, presents a sort of Schlemmer-assembled figure on a gray stage framed by gray curtains. There is a de Chirico quality to the figures and objects in Nutt's work; here, as in so many of his pictures, tiny, fantastic figures disport independently elsewhere on the canvas.

Particularly stunning are the black-and-white images Nutt created in the 80s. Like much of the work, these are surrounded by painted frames that are part of the overall composition and underscore the objectness of the artwork. Jarring in their distinctive physiognomies--like "Dick Tracy" villain mug shots--these meltdown visages achieve an almost Arbus-like freakishness. But it's the rarity of black-and-white portraiture in paint, the way this tonality tricks the eye into anticipating photography's realism, that jolts the viewer.

Nutt's focus on the face in the 80s and 90s has led him to produce an array of imaginary female likenesses that are among the most compelling in contemporary portraiture. Although marked by alarming distortions (including huge, sickly noses), they're perhaps the most traditionally feminine of Nutt's women. In Daft (1991) a dark, conical nose with tiny tubular nostrils cleaves the face in two, and there's a vaguely Magritte cast to the construction of the face in Moat (1992). Precisely rendered and lusciously colored, these portraits come across as loving mediations of the formal and stylistic strategies Nutt has admired over the years, in advertising, folk art, outsider art, movies, German expressionism, Miro, Picasso. In some, a flattening of the image highlights the massing of blunt, discrete forms. In others, there's a certain cubist disarray to the features. In all, the subtlety of skin tones signals a dramatic advance in Nutt's sense of color.

Nutt's apparent rendering of sexual politics is, at first glance, apposite to the he-said-she-said communication gap. But looking at the work this way gives it a terribly limited role. These images should not mean so much, or so little. After all, Nutt achieves the near impossible: showing us something we've never seen before, things we can't imagine.

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