See the Art Heroes of Hairy Who & the Chicago Imagists at the Sie FilmCenter Thursday

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In 1965, hot on the heels of the emergence of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein and the new wave of pop art, a lively group of artists assembled in Chicago’s Hyde Park Art Center like a brushed and stained version of the Avengers. They called themselves the Hairy Who and took pop art by storm, making it their own. Their story is captured in a new documentary, Hairy Who & the Chicago Imagists, which screens Thursday, April 16 at the Sie FilmCenter as part of its DocNight series. Heavily influenced by popular culture, the vibrant energy of comic books and music, the Hairy Who got tongues wagging with their "unusual" works while people were still comfy with artwork as usual. The group's influence quickly gave birth to its own comic-book universe of like-minded art teams, including the Non-Plussed Some and the False Image, who waged their own battle against the status quo with their surrealist visions.

This is all really an origin story about how the collected efforts of a few built a structure for the many. It's best described by the film’s narrator, Cheryl Lynn Bruce, who says: “History is messy, confusing, often it’s depicted as a straight line placing one charismatic innovator after another. Isn’t it more like a web? A web of energies and artifacts, individuals and ensembles. A moment intricately connected to other such moments, radiating outward.” 

Meet the uncanny art heroes of the Hairy Who:

Jim Nutt
Inspired by pinball-machine art as well as the American commercial movement of colorful glass window paintings in stores to advertise their wares, Nutt began reverse painting on plexiglass and, drawing from skills acquired years earlier at a framing shop, crafted ornate frames around his bizarre, often repellant images: genitals placed on bodies where they don’t go, open wounds, etc. His painting was vibrant and shocking, and used a perfect balance of flat color with what some called a “goofy obscenity.” 

Gladys Nilsson
Nilsson fell in love at a young age with Fleischer Studio’s animated Popeye cartoons, Olive Oyl in particular; the characters seemed to exist in a world where gravity didn’t exist and their bodies appeared to be made of putty. Using watercolor as her main tool, Nilsson’s artscapes featured people in Fleischer-esque poses and manipulated their scale and proportion to fill every angle of the frame. Nilsson was considered the most "feminine"of the Hairy Who group, a distinction that befuddled the artist. “I don’t think of work as being masculine or feminine,” she said.

Art Green
Green took a fancy to the hard perfection of illustrated advertisements of the time but added a Dali-like surrealism to the pieces, often hinting at structures collapsing amid iconic images like ice cream-cone infernos and perfectly manicured fingernails. When asked if the Hairy Who was trying to upset the apple cart of traditional art, he said this: “No, we didn’t want to overthrow anything, we weren’t mad at the museums particularly, we didn’t have a manifesto, we didn’t have a mission statement. But we made things we wanted to look at, you know?”

Suellen Rocca
At first glance, Rocca’s work could be accused of being drenched in feminist iconography — tiny images of dresses, jewelry, wigs, shoes and other household goods pepper her art – but the images pointed more to Rocca’s obsession with mass visual culture, in particular the drawings she found in catalogs and other mass production. With a thin, pencil style akin to doodles, she began incorporating floating bodies and often clouds in her images, creating the air of a pop-culture dreamscape.

Karl Wirsum 
As a white, middle-class kid living in Chicago, Wirsum developed an admiration for street artists performing at a local flea market and a deep love of the blues. Creating pieces based on his favorite singers, his love of the music came across as pure joy on his canvas, which featured glowing, electric colors that nearly vibrated themselves out of the frame. Of his style, the perky Wirsum said, “Basically, what I try to do is set up an enjoyment level. My whole system of creativity is based on a kind of enjoyment, even though some of the things I may do may have some grotesque elements to them, or, not all kind of joyful in the final result. A lot of my stuff… hopefully has some kind of mysterious element or some other kind of thing happening with it. But basically my own mood has to do with feeling good.”

Jim Falconer
A fresh graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Falconer exhibited in the first Hairy Who show but soon abandoned his work from this time and headed to New York, where he focused his career on photography and film. He only recently returned to Chicago and his old friends with a new exploration of abstract painting very different from the work that kicked off his career fifty years ago, a pastiche of styles of his students, teachers and friends mixed with a dose of German Expressionism and a healthy sense of humor.

Hairy Who & the Chicago Imagists screens at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 16 at the Sie, 2510 East Colfax Avenue. Tickets are $15 ($12 for DFS members) and include a reception at 6:30 p.m. and a Q&A with producer Brian Ashby. For more information, go to denverfilm.org.

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