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This week I would like to direct your attention to something joyous, witty and uplifting.  No prizes for guessing why.  Coinciding with the exhibition How Chicago! Imagists 1960s & 70s opening at Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art this week, Hales gallery are offering a solo showing of one of the key members of the Chicago Imagist group:  Gladys Nilsson.  I urge you to see it. Where the Goldsmiths exhibition is more of a historic survey, at Hales you get a chance to see just how good Nilsson is now.

The loose group of artists that became known to art history as the Chicago Imagists, and gave themselves the early name ‘The Hairy Who’, met when studying painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago between 1958 and 1962.  Unlike their peers on the East or West coasts, where Conceptual art was the order of the day, Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Suellen Rocca, Karl Wirsum, Art Green and Jim Falconer drew on an exuberant variety of personal, popular and outsider sources to create work that defied definition.  Also in contrast to the scene elsewhere in the US, The Hairy Who in Chicago was noteworthy for the number of women artists involved – a fact that was neither remarkable to them, nor a campaign platform.

Gladys Nilsson’s works read like dispatches from a less fraught and fractious age, or maybe it is that she is now able to report on human relationships from the sanguine perspective of her 70 plus years?   Her paintings, drawings and collage generously acknowledge the fundamental absurdities of life while revelling in sensuality.  What would happen if, in real life, men’s clothing emphasised their primary sexual characteristics in the way women’s clothing routinely has for centuries?  Nilsson’s male characters wear trousers neatly tailored around their penises, so that intentions and mood are all too apparent:  some slyly tilting, others optimistically upstanding, or sullenly distracted.

Her women are big and voluptuous – in the 2014 watercolour A Table, diminutive suitors are literally scaling the monumental female protagonist.  Like all Nilsson’s females, she does not even try to conform to conventional standards of beauty, but wears her self-confidence with a nonchalant swagger.

One of Nilsson’s early influences were Popeye cartoons and you can feel some of the DNA from the feisty and rubber-limbed girlfriend Olive Oyl in her female characters, with their well-filled boob-tubes and opera gloves.  They are “unencumbered by the rules of gravity, scale or proportion”, with a look of gentle forbearing on their faces.

Only in the series of collages entitled A Walk do her characters evince more complex emotions.  In each of the five collages the fleshy female is uncomfortably encased in stiffly improbable garments that visibly squeeze, pinch and constrain the body, whilst not entirely containing it.  In A Walk…#8 the character’s laconic side-eye seems to say ‘I’m truly doing my best to make this look good, but it’s never going to work’.  In A Walk….#7, a St Sebastian like figure is assailed by the slings and arrows of outrageous fashion, her little pink pubis just visible beneath her skirt.

Collage has recently featured more prominently in Nilsson’s work and here she uses cut-out elements from magazines and art books to punctuate the drawings with figures from Renaissance paintings, cosmetics and fashion accessories. The collaged elements interact with the drawn in a tight compositional logic, with a spare pictorial strategy that sends the eye searching for additional narratives.

Nilsson’s skill as a draughtswoman is consummate, her line is immaculate, but on the pink wall of the gallery, it is the colour of the largest work here that assails you first.  Hammocked, 2013 is a densely composed watercolour with a cast of tiny players in attendance on the central, giant female.  She lounges in her hammock, like a funky odalisque, while they busy themselves in their various dramas among the branches of the tree.   Perhaps they are the stories that people her thoughts as she indulges in her Matissean reverie?  You bring your own story to Nilsson’s works.

So for a much-needed corrective to the prevailing mood of the week, make a beeline for Hales Gallery.

– Caroline Douglas

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