You won't find very much visible wall space at Miishkooki gallery in Skokie this month. Artist Tim Kerr has used nearly every inch available in the venue to hang his colorful acrylic portraits—tributes to his heroes, which include figures as varied as bluesman Mance Lipscomb, photographer Walker Evans, and activist Fred Hampton—for his solo show "Your Name Here."
Kerr is probably best known as the guitarist for 1980s Texas punk band the Big Boys, though he's been in many other groups and has produced numerous records for others. Still, painting and photography are important aspects of his artistic practice. He attended the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied under noted photographer Garry Winogrand (who's one of the people featured on Miishkooki's walls), and had his first art show at about the same time the Big Boys were getting going in the early 80s. He's frequently said that he doesn't separate his music from his visual art—it's all self-expression to him.
Kerr's subjects fall into roughly four groups: civil rights figures and social or political activists; jazz, folk, country, and blues musicians; photographers; and visionary, often self-taught visual artists. His paintings are rendered in bright, flat, loosely applied acrylic colors; features such as eyes and ears are drawn over the paint with markers. The portraits are done on a variety of surfaces, such as pieces of paper, cardboard, old pull-down school maps, and skateboards. Most of the works have the subject's name and a bit of information written on them; without this text it can be hard to tell whom Kerr is depicting.
Judging by the quick and informal way he renders his subjects, verisimilitude isn't Kerr's aim. From across the room the pieces look like flat, multicolored abstractions. It's these colors—often combined in unusual and surprising ways—that invite visitors to look at the paintings up close, where they can read the text on each work. There's a quote from Albert Ayler on his portrait ("Coltrane was the father / Pharoah was the son / I was the holy ghost") and one from Dick Gregory on his own painting ("I never learned hate at home. I had to go to school for that"). Some include the subject's biography, and many of the works feature mantras or slogans like truth, seek what they sought, and tradition pass it on. These people are Kerr's heroes, and their lives are meant to inspire us as well.
Kerr has included many Chicagoans, among them Ernie Banks, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Dawoud Bey, and Vivian Maier. Several years ago, Kerr's interest in Maier prompted him to contact John Maloof, Miishkooki's proprietor and one of the principal creative forces behind the documentary Finding Vivian Maier. The exhibit also includes a "Friends Wall" toward the back of the gallery, with work by local artists including Jon Langford, Greg Shirilla, and Panhandle Slim, who contributes a portrait of Wesley Willis.
By signing his pieces Your Name Here, paying tribute to others, and bringing different artists into his show, Kerr does all he can to express his vision of inclusive artistry. Miishkooki is a nonprofit where artists keep all proceeds and also handle all sales. When I visited the gallery, a couple came in to look around: the man said he felt bad he couldn't recognize most of Kerr's subjects; the woman asked specifically to be shown "the one of Chance the Rapper." After making a call she told Maloof she'd take it—she was going to give it as a bar mitzvah present. Maloof told the woman Kerr's wife would be mailing her an invoice. A look at the price list reveals that none of the pieces cost more than a few hundred dollars. The whole interaction seemed in perfect alignment with Kerr's DIY, all-embracing spirit—even the most frugal collector can purchase one of his artworks.
Taken as a whole, the portraits in "Your Name Here" form a kind of secular shrine. To even a casual passerby, a quick peek into Miishkooki might make you feel like "you go out and the pictures are staring at you." Photographer Lee Friedlander said that; you can find the quote on his portrait. v