Muralist Glen C. Davies works on a recent project in Ikenberry Commons at the University of Illinois, 2015. Photo by Julia Nucci Kelly
Gladys Nilsson, 1966. Courtesy of Pentimenti Productions. Photo by William Arsenault.

KAM: So... who are the Imagists?

Davies: The Imagists started as a group of artists in Chicago in the ‘60s and Imagist art grew through the 1970’s. They used organic forms and high, brilliant color. Sometimes their work showed a real sense of humor, but with a serious side or underlying meaning. Some had a kind of ‘in your face’ approach that was influenced by gritty, working class life. They used techniques and images from posters, painted shop windows, comic books, pinball parlors, strip clubs and a lot of their work had ethnographic influences: Mexican art, Oceanic, Persian, Japanese, and others.

KAM: Who are the “Hairy Who” artists, and how did they get together?

Davies: At first the group wasn’t affiliated at all. Most of the artists had studios in their homes; some were connected with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Karl Wirsum still teaches there, actually.

I'd say that Imagist art covered several groups that included artists such as Karl Wirsum, Gladys Nilsson, James Falconer, Jim Nutt, Art Green, Roger Brown, Ed Flood, Ray Yoshida, Ed Paschke. There were other important ones as well.

These aritists created work independently, but in the mid 60’s artist and curator Don Baum felt like it might be a good idea for them to exhibit as a group. Not that many galleries were showing new art, so he organized shows at the Hyde Park Art Center. The artists needed a cool, quirky name for those first Hyde Park exhibitions; being notorious punsters, I think Karl first came up with “Hairy Who”, just as an inside joke or play on words about a Chicago art critic.

KAM: Why is this group worth knowing about?

Davies: Well, maybe you should ask “Why don’t you know about them already?” It’s kind of funny that they’re not as well known. But that’s really part of their story.

They worked in Chicago—not New York.

Their work was blue collar—not slick and advertising-inspired like Pop Art.

They weren’t written about that often in the big art magazines, but they did get support for their work in Chicago’s Playboy Magazine, through illustration commissions for articles.

They were outsiders in a very real sense.

Even so, in some cases, they used elaborate technique. Their art could be folk-inspired but updated for the time, like reverse painting on plexiglass or mylar. Sometimes they tried to re-create urban environments… like one "Hairy Who" show that turned the gallery into a big sculpture of a furnace room, so visitors felt like they were walking into the basement of an apartment building.

As an artist myself, I find their work innovative and inspiring. Even non-artists will look at them, though, and think, “Wow. This is cool.”

KAM: So I understand there is a “Hairy Who” event coming up in town?

Davies: Yes—a film at the Art Theatre called “Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists” Monday, Feb. 23 at 7:30 p.m.

The film features some well-known contemporary artists, like Jeff Koons and Chris Ware, who use the Imagists as a touch-point for their own work. I’ll introduce the film and then after the screening, Karl Wirsum and the movie’s writer John Corbett will stick around to talk about the project and take questions from the audience. It should be a great event.