Leslie Buchbinder's documentary film Hairy Who and The Chicago Imagists first amazed audiences this past April at the Newport Beach Film Festival and makes its way back to OC Thursday night at the Orange County Museum of Art. I even had the pleasure of interviewing Buchbinder about the Hairy Who and making the film; you can read that in-depth conversation here.
To summarize, Hairy Who and The Chicago Imagists illustrates (with nifty illustrated animation, no less) the bizarre and irreverent cadre of Chicago artists from the 1960s whose work challenged the growing pop art movement of New York and Los Angeles. Those scenes had become highly acclaimed in the art world; the work of the Imagists did not.
In fact, it was downright ignored if not despised, and would become relegated to artistic obscurity if it weren't remembered by a new generation of artists such as Chris Ware, Gary Panter, or Jeff Koons.
There were various waves of Chicago Imagists since the second World War, but the film focuses its lens most on the loose collective known as the Hairy Who. The art of the Hairy Who can be characterized as an embrace of low brow culture: comic books, pin ball machine art, neon signs, carnival poster design, cheesecake nudes, and other oddball manifestations of kitsch with a fervent sense of insanity, luridness and peculiarity rarely seen before.
As the film tells it, the union of the Hairy Who artists began like this: artists Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson approached Hyde Park Art Center director Don Baum with an idea for a group show consisting of Nutt, Nilsson, and friends Suellen Rocca, James Falconer and Art Green; Baum insisted they also include artist Karl Wirsum. The group formed a loose collective, appearing in several shows together as the Hairy Who, a name they coined one afternoon that sprang from a discussion (someone said the name Harry, and Wirsum asked "Harry who?" That somehow ignited a mental spark to which they decided to be known as the Hairy Who). The artists, roughly the same age and witnessing key events and cultural shifts during the late 1960s, used their art to respond and provide commentary. Although all of the artists worked in a similar vein of surrealism, their individual pieces explored different topics through different mediums and styles, yet when placed in the same room, they formed a sense of cohesion.
"I think sometimes what happens in a given place and time, there are a lot of influences and energy that come together; an overall gestalt that you can't actually define. You can try to parse the components that go into it, everything from source materials to the city itself to what was going on in the art world to the art institute. But all of these things they participated in together, like when they formulated their shows at the Hyde Park Art Center, brought on the concept of being alone together for the group and is, I think, what happened with the Hairy Who that made them look at each others' art, come up with the concepts for shows together, and form that unity," Buchbinder says.
But why wasn't their work accepted? Why was the work of the Hairy Who, or the Chicago Imagists in general, shunned? That's the main question underlying throughout the narrative of the film. By the time the 1960s rolled in, surrealism was out of vogue in the art world, making way for postmodernism, Pop Art, the Light and Space movement, feminist art, and performance art making their way in. Under this reign, the work of the Hairy Who was simply not seen or regarded as contributing to the main discussions within that realm.
"Sometimes art world dialogues are more about internal dialogue about what has come before and therefore what people think should come next as continuing the dialogue, so even if the social world seems to be embracing a surrealistic point of view, the art world thought it was so passé. If you think about style, its about what was in at one time that leads to something else that leads to a rebellion, and then a dialogue. But the center of the art world was saying we had that conversation, we want a new conversation. Doesn't mean that at any given time art that is being created that is not part of that central conversation in the moment isn't good, it just seems at odds at what the inner art world wants," Buchbinder continues.
But now with the film, and the current benefit of internet and social media, anyone can learn about what the Hairy Who once was and who it influenced. Niche audiences and art collectors have kept a preservation of their work intact, while Chicago art students after them hold Nutt, Nilsson and another Chicago Imagist Ed Paschke in high esteem. And now with Buchbinder's film, the Hairy Who artists and Imagists will get their moment in the sun– finally! The film, as Buchbinder has told me, has made its way across the Atlantic for screenings in Europe as well as all over the US. Your second chance to see it in the OC (or anywhere in Southern California, for that matter) is Thursday night at 8pm. Don't miss out!
Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists screens Thursday 8pm at Orange County Museum of Art as part of Cinema Orange. Screening is Free with museum admission. For more information, visit OCMA's Cinema Orange page here.