Gladys Nilsson

at Jean Albano, through October 17

Gladys Nilsson: A Print Survey

at Printworks, through October 10

Ann Wiens

at Byron Roche, through October 17

By Fred Camper

The myth of the artist as the true creator of the world has preoccupied Gladys Nilsson off and on for more than two decades and still animates her recent watercolors and prints. In Her Source–one of 16 new watercolors at Jean Albano (there are also five acrylic-and-collage works)–an artist holds a photograph of some hills in one hand while painting with the other. Photo-realism is not this artist’s intent, however: her absurdly steep, phallic mountains look nothing like the photo’s rolling hills, though they do echo the artist’s pointy breasts. Moreover, the mountains seem to be taking over the composition, apparently painted over a wide band of the artist’s space on the right. Nilsson further underlines artists’ power by including another, smaller painting that shows another artist whose arm and palette extend beyond the painting’s lower border into the larger though still fictive world.

Nilsson’s fantasy interiors and landscapes are at once exquisite and absurd, juxtaposing giants and midgets, mountain peaks with forests of mushrooms. Nilsson pays more attention to rhythm than realism, her figures unified skeins of curves that connect with other curves in the compositions. Each picture has a kind of dual presence: it’s both a completed representation of a whimsical imagined world and a picture that’s still coming into being. In the Great Outdoors shows a tiny painter standing in the midst of a beanstalk jungle; she seems too small to have created everything around her, but nevertheless she’s busily drawing a line on one of the stalks. Meanwhile a man next to her stares at her breasts while sketching them.

Many of Nilsson’s other figures are presented as artists in their way. A fisherman’s rod looks like a paintbrush dripping a long blue stream of color representing a river. A woman draws a new mouth on her chin with lipstick. In Still Life Painter a woman drops paint on an arrangement of fruit as if recoloring them. Below her arm, a miniature doorway leads to a tiny room where a carpet seems to float magically partway out the door. Like the arm and palette in Her Source, this carpet seems to be coming to life.

The autobiographical element is unmistakable; some of Nilsson’s women even look like her. Born in Chicago in 1940 and now a Wilmette resident, Nilsson has been drawing and painting since childhood. “When I travel I always have some sort of art supplies,” she told me. “I think I would go nuts if I couldn’t work.” Her strongest childhood memory of art is of the long-gone galleries at the Art Institute that displayed plaster casts of classical sculptures and building facades. Nilsson remembers these galleries as “a quiet mystical area” with an “otherworldly” feel that she connects with the false-front sets of westerns she also saw at the time. Whitney Halstead was her “most influential” teacher at the School of the Art Institute: “He would juxtapose fine painting and street advertising, or gnarled trees, or beautiful arrangements in shops–knives and scissors, or meat. It taught you that you could go into the museum and see grand and glorious things and then walk on the street and see things equally interesting.”

One of the original Hairy Who artists, who exhibited together from 1966 to 1969, Nilsson names an eclectic range of artistic influences: “Magritte, Australian aboriginal bark paintings, African sculptures, Persian miniatures, humorous Victorian postcards, comics, O’Keeffe and Marin and Burchfield and Demuth.” At some point she realized that looking at different size photos of models in Sears catalogs as a child was “a catalyst to my playing with scale.” And some of the poses she uses are inspired by “exchanges I see between anonymous people. I collect postures, body attitudes, confrontations.”

Given her wide range of inspiration, what’s remarkable is how unified Nilsson’s images look. Some elements of her style have remained constant for three decades; in 1966 Halstead wrote that Nilsson presented her figures “from footlight level as if on a stage” and that she retrieved the “realm [of nonsense] for art.” Part of what makes her present work so seductive is the way she links humor and whimsy with the grand theme of the artist’s creative power. Her work is at once profound and profoundly silly in the way it unifies vastly different objects and universes. There’s something appealingly ridiculous about the way the painter’s nose in Out Her Window takes on a bit of green coloration from the plant she’s sketching. At the same time, this transference signals that the entire world is alive with creative potential–just as she paints the plant, the plant “paints” her nose. Two “art viewers” in the same picture reveal the creative potential in even passive activities. A miniature man (perhaps Nilsson’s husband, artist Jim Nutt) reads a newspaper or magazine; but one must remember that the Hairy Who were often inspired by popular imagery. And a cat looking at a cat painting reminds us of the huge role a picture’s subject plays. What makes these pictures affecting is the way the artist and the world play equal roles in creation.

The landscape of Mtn. Painter beautifully illustrates this dynamic. Below the large central figure, mountain peaks sprout arms, one holding a photograph, another a camera, and a third a small tree, suggesting an endless natural generation of subjects and imagery. But what really brings such works to life is Nilsson’s dynamic, unifying sense of line. Her almost bulbous curves are a bit aggressive–in many ways her women are as phallic as her men. Like the hills sprouting cameras and painters’ brushes, her lines themselves seem alive, ready to give birth to new images.

Twenty prints from the 90s at Printworks confirm that Nilsson is a master of line. The curves of the woman in Maximysing combine with the more intricate designs of the picture on the wall behind her to create a strong rhythm, unifying art with daily life. Perhaps reflecting Nilsson’s time as both artist and mother, this figure has four arms: she irons with two, draws with a third, and squirts something from a tube with a fourth. In The String Game a woman holds the beginnings of a cat’s cradle whose curves are echoed by other elements of the composition: using the cat’s cradle as a metaphor for image making links art and play.

The cat on the woman’s shoulder is partly self-referential–Nilsson is a cat lover–and this show continues the artist’s autobiographical approach. Still, the small size of the woman contemplating an image of herself in Hmmm reveals that Nilsson’s self-portraiture partakes of neither the classicist’s attempts to peer into the soul nor the postmodernist’s questioning of identity nor the narcissist’s self-aggrandizement. It’s simply a convenient way of generating new images.

Ann Wiens’s 13 meticulous depictions of animals, mostly paintings, at Byron Roche don’t look at all like Nilsson’s extravagant fantasies. Yet the two artists are linked by their devotion to both whimsy and beauty. A Chicagoan born in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1963, Wiens takes her art seriously, but she told me she’s always thought that “it’s a kind of goofy activity and a lot of fun.” An art critic and, until recently, an editor at the New Art Examiner, Wiens is aware that “the visual quality of paintings is not what the art world is most interested in. Some people look at what I’m doing and don’t think it’s very cool or very hip.”

There’s nothing unassuming or modest about her paintings. Even her black-and-white work is bright, forceful, radiant, and disturbingly sensual, placing her subjects, often insects or reptiles, against brightly contrasting backgrounds. She began applying her paint in translucent layers after seeing the landmark 1988 exhibition of early Renaissance Sienese paintings at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art–luminous works especially notable for their complex, intense colors. Going to see the Sienese show “over and over,” Wiens found she was also fascinated by the artists’ somewhat skewed perspective: “They had it off in a really great way. But there’s so much confidence in the way they painted that it makes the paintings look right.”

And in fact perspectival ambiguity is also at the heart of Wiens’s work, especially the relationship between her foreground creatures and geometrically patterned backgrounds. Wiens, whose father is a zoologist, kept a variety of animals as pets, and the animals she paints often look stuffed and mounted. But other elements suggest that Wiens has gone beyond her original sources, often photos. In fact, few of her animals are painted with complete accuracy: she alters their appearance, often their markings, to “make a good picture,” she told me. “I paint to create things that don’t otherwise exist, something that I wouldn’t be able to see if I couldn’t paint it.”

In some pictures the backgrounds seem linked to the animals: like Nilsson’s visual patterns, Wiens’s are generative, the paint dynamically filling the space. California Tiger Salamander (for Karen) shows a curved black reptile speckled with white spots. The background is made up of black spots on white, large at the top and growing smaller at the bottom, introducing the hint of a tilt, a floating spatial ambiguity rather than a sustained perspectival effect. But what really drives the picture is the dizzying tension between Wiens’s background and foreground, which threatens to bring the salamander and abstract pattern together; the dots almost overwhelm the creature they surround.

The radiant background pattern in Back in My Snail Shell–bright red squares against luminous green–is in complete contrast with the snail’s organic shape and splotchy black-and-white coloration. One of the strongest paintings of the show, it’s also one of the oddest: these two utterly different visual fields nevertheless seem to be half fused. Perhaps their simultaneous tension and attraction is Wiens’s metaphor for those deeply subjective encounters that seem to dissolve identity–when an intense encounter with nature or with a lover locks you into an embrace with the “other,” almost erasing the boundaries of the self.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Hmmm” by Gladys Nilsson; “California Tiger Salamander (for Karen)” by Ann Wiens.