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How Chicago! Imagists 1960s & 70s review

Gladys Nilsson, A Cold Mouth, 1968 © the artist. Courtesy the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York
Gladys Nilsson, A Cold Mouth, 1968 © the artist. Courtesy the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York

An underdog to major cities, Chicago is never romanticised in the same way as its American peers, New York and Los Angeles. While the latter pair enjoy their ‘cool’ and ‘trendy’ reputations, Chicago just isn’t deemed the cultural capital of the United States, and is never the first to come to mind in discussions of art.

Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art’s newest exhibition, however, might be a game changer. How Chicago! Imagists 1960s & 70s is the first major introduction of the Imagists’ work to the UK in almost 40 years. The collection documents the works of artists behind the Chicago Imagism movement, which defended an iconic era in the Windy City’s culture.

While London and New York fawned over psychedelic and pop art from the likes of Andy Warhol, Chicago remained unbothered, instead paving its own way with a sense of freedom so evident in the work created during this era.

Uninterested by artistic trends, the likes of Christina Ramberg, Barbara Rossi, Roger Brown and Jim Nutt experimented with everything from acrylic to cutlery, forging a path for a generation of midwestern artists who were keen to nod to art history, while conjuring something inherently modern. This is evident in the way colour adorns the walls of Goldsmiths CCA, with many pieces seeming reminiscent of cartoons, yet with a slight edge of distortion, appropriate for the 60s.

Providing a real insight into the 1960s American culture, many pieces focus on consumerism as well as the American entertainment industry, something fascinating to observe from a modern perspective due to pop culture’s rapid evolution. There is also a nod to comic book culture, advertising, and an undeniable sense of Chicago patriotism.

Highlights include Roger Brown’s ‘Mask For a Waitress’, an unconventional piece consisting of forks and a mop, as well as Christina Ramberg’s ‘Double Hesitation’ which explores the seductive yet disturbing world of women’s undergarments, a topic of fascination for Ramberg from a young age.

There’s also a chance to see the rare collaborations between the group who, although they were close friends, rarely worked together. These crossover pieces exist solely in the promotional work for their exhibitions, often in the form of handmade posters and fliers. ‘Marriage Chicago Style’ is an example of this, a collage that unapologetically embraces the Imagist’s roots, while simultaneously separating them from any prior cultural movement in history.

Appropriately, How Chicago! Documents the work from a group who met while studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, making its setting at Goldsmiths somewhat significant. Perhaps the new era of Imagists are walking those very halls today.

How Chicago! Is on display at Goldsmiths CCA until the 27th of May, and the free exhibition is worth a trip into South East London, with comical and abstract pieces spanning three floors.

This article was written for a university assignment in 2019 and the exhibition is no longer available.

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