The last several years have seen the brink of what will hopefully be a sea change in the way we write, teach and exhibit art history. Among the long-awaited challenges to institutionalized biases is the revisiting of female artists whose practices have proven to have matched (and often outmatched) those of their male peers, but have received far less recognition. In Chicago, three established female artists who’ve each been practicing for 30 or 40 years have reasserted their places in the city’s artistic dialogue, with a season of powerhouse exhibitions. For Barbara Rossi and Phyllis Bramson, new takes on, and renewed interest in the trajectory of their careers prove the continuing resonance of their visions; for Diane Simpson, a spike in institutional and market attention have made for an unprecedented boom late in her career.
Barbara Rossi has the unique experience of being a living legend. As a central player of the Imagists, Chicago’s most famous art movement, Rossi created works that aligned with the group’s interest in distorted figures, bawdy palettes, and the vernacular visuals of the city. However, Rossi’s oeuvre has had a life beyond the Imagist 1970s heyday, as proven in part by “Barbara Rossi: Poor Traits,” an exhibition of the artist’s work from the late 1960s and early 1970s presented by the New Museum in New York last fall, and remounted May 12 – August 21, 2016, at DePaul Art Museum in Chicago. After a critically successful run on the East Coast, Rossi’s first solo show in her hometown in 25 years was accompanied by an auxiliary exhibition, “Eye Owe You!,” Rossi’s selection of photographs from her own massive archive of visual research materials.
The importance of looking to Rossi’s practice cannot be emphasized enough. Recalling a powerful visual memory even as a child, Rossi’s rapt ocular attention to the world around her was reinforced by the teaching style of School of the Art Institute of Chicago historian and artist Whitney Halstead. “He introduced students to things that weren’t from Europe… At the time, that wasn’t even talked about in most schools,” Rossi recalls. “But Whitney had gone there, and photographed everything. He would just show pictures, without explaining. Just look, look, look, look.” Innumerable students from Rossi’s own 45-year tenure as Professor of Painting and Drawing at SAIC can attest to the benefits of learning to look in the way that Rossi has so carefully honed. Like her old teacher, Halstead, Rossi routinely presented her students with her collected photographs, and encouraged them to develop their own methods of looking.
Newly retired, Rossi culled from countless photographs she uses for formal inspiration images of grocery store displays, neon shoe repair signs, mass produced religious statues, and kitschy billboards for “Eye Owe You!” making it the first time that these images have been exhibited as art, and not merely as research. “The photos have been ways for me to keep some of the things that just draw you, like what you notice while you’re driving down the street, and almost cause a wreck!” she laughs.
But, first and foremost, Rossi is a masterful maker of paintings and drawings, and “Poor Traits” highlights only part of her long career. The two-part exhibition features Rossi’s airy, subtle “magic drawings”-her term for the surrealist, intuitive graphite works of figurative imagery mingled with patterns and abstraction-and her bold, reverse Plexiglas paintings. Unlike other Imagists, Rossi favored abstraction over representation in her painting, with bulbous, pulsating organic forms rendered with perfectly controlled outlines and impossibly flat planes of color. Each painting can consist of up to five separate layers of Plexiglas and fabric backing; with space left between the layers, Rossi’s paint casts the slightest shadows upon the ground behind it, enhancing the graphic quality to her work to a degree that’s perceptually boggling. However, as all these different visual stimuli come together-the kitsch, the signage, the sheen, and the abstraction-the disparate parts always add up to a figurative composition: the head and shoulders.
Phyllis Bramson, too, has had a career-long dedication to the figure, although she is of a generation younger than Rossi & Co. Bramson’s retrospective exhibition, “Under the Pleasure Dome” at the Chicago Cultural Center (June 4 – August 28, 2016), contains examples from a 30-year oeuvre, commingling art history and kitsch, found material and hand rendering, the erotic, the tragic, and the joyful. As the show illustrates, Bramson is a resolutely committed painter, but she explains that that wasn’t always the case. In 1980, seven years after Bramson finished graduate school at SAIC, the artist was grappling with large-scale drawings when a traveling Philip Guston retrospective came to the MCA in Chicago. “Thought to myself, ‘You’ve been an idiot. You gotta get back on the canvas,'” Bramson recalls. “Painting wasn’t very respected at the time, and I fell into that trap, which I will never do again. And I haven’t turned back away from painting since.”
Even so, Bramson’s journey as a painter wasn’t without rough patches, though the process of overcoming obstacles is precisely what fuels her innovations. “There came a point where painting wasn’t working for me,” the artist recalls. “I found that I was making some bad paintings, but I would find parts that worked. So I cut the paintings up.” Around that time, Bramson began frequenting flea markets and dime stores, buying up entire series of chintzy paintings of roses or clowns. Later, she scoured the phonebook for painting warehouses to source her material. Those too were cut up, and incorporated into her own paintings. “That started me on the process of collages: some of the stuff from my own paintings, but four or five different paintings,” she says. “It’s a hodge-podge of things that I gather around my studio.”
Bramson’s interest in domestic kitsch generates from her childhood. “My house was high and low kitsch. There was a lot of nudity. A lot of the things that I have in my work, I looked at all the time as a child,” she explains. “It took me a while to realize how important that was. I ask my students to think about it: what did you really look at when you were a kid, what was important to you?” At the entrance to “Under the Pleasure Dome” is a long shelf, crammed with gleaming ceramic tchotchkes, the kinds that are simultaneously timeless and thoroughly dated: an exotic prince is positioned next to a girl in prim colonial dress, surrounded by a beaming bucket of apples and an oversized Japanese fortune cat. With this assemblage as an introduction to Bramson’s unique vocabulary, viewers are prepped to interpret the artist’s amalgams of narrative imagery.
There’s a brashness to Bramson’s vision that builds content on top of the nostalgia and decorativeness of her visual references. In Pastoral Pleasures (2006), topless girls swing merrily in the trees while a grinning clown leers beneath their billowing skirts. What is One’s Real Life? (2007) depicts a group of cartoon animal children peering bashfully at a partially n
ude couple in the midst of an embrace. In 1987’s Shipwrecked, contorted bodies cling to various objects as a storm ravages in the distance. “I think about the world deeply,” says Bramson. “The works are about what it’s like to be human. Some if it’s tender, some of it’s raucous, some of it’s stupid, and some of it’s real serious.” Though, what Bramson has to say about humanity in her paintings comes not from literal narratives, but an instinctual understanding, as a result of the artist’s intuitive thought process. “This show has given me a sense of how my brain operates,” Bramson observes. “And it’s made me realize that my brain wasn’t always operating this way; it’s come with maturity.”
Late career revelations have been a part of the narrative surrounding Diane Simpson as well, though not so much in terms of self-reflection, but of outside attention. Simpson studied with Rossi at SAIC, and upon finishing her MFA in 1978, was never lacking for exhibition venues, including the Imagists’ own gallerist, Phyllis Kind. With impeccably constructed, hard-edged sculptures, Simpson’s pieces had the sleek finish that characterized the Imagist aesthetic, though there was no denying that (as far as collectors were concerned) Chicago was a figurative painting town; Simpson was a three-dimensional artist whose pieces referenced the constructions of architecture and clothing.
A steady, under-the-radar resume lead to a 2008 show at the Racine Art Museum and a 2010 retrospective at the Chicago Cultural Center, marking a substantial turning point. In the years that followed, Simpson joined the roster of Chicago’s Corbett vs Dempsey Gallery, and almost 40 years worth of art inventory began entering collections, exhibitions at galleries in New York, London and Berlin, another retrospective at the ICA Boston this past winter, and a solo exhibition at the MCA Chicago in spring 2016. “There’s something about the age thing that is also part of why it’s happened,” Simpson notes, of these recent, eventful years. “It’s that interesting story about how somebody has been ignored for so many years, and all of a sudden is ‘discovered.’ Practically every article that’s written about me mentions my age.”
When looking at the course of Simpson’s studio practice, the changes that occur over time are subtle and organic. Overall, her works are remarkably consistent, from architectural cardboard installations in the late ’70s, to samurai-inspired MDF sculptures of the ’80s, to the multi-media clothing references in the works throughout the last 20 years. Each work begins with a drawing, with the perspective carefully planned, the angles calculated exactly. While Simpson does abstract, she doesn’t empty out all of the representation. “I don’t want a literal interpretation of the source; I want a hint of where it came from,” she explains. Nor does each piece proceed as prescribed by her drawings. “That’s what I find enjoyable: working out the problems. There’s always a difficult problem with each one,” says Simpson. “And it’s kind of like pain: you forget it after it’s gone!”
This September, Simpson mounts her second solo show at Corbett vs Dempsey, with a series of new pieces that derive from the architecture of peplum bodices. Simpson transforms this feminine shape into structures with sharp pleats of textured metal, lattice-work and exposed, spindly armatures, complicating perceptions of positive and negative space. With her studio busier than ever, Simpson has no intentions of slowing down. “It’s unusual to have the kind of luck I’ve had in the last couple of years with the work getting out there,” Simpson says. “With women, so many… get discouraged because they don’t get the encouragement that they need, or the opportunities or the recognition. But that’s changing, luckily… Things have really popped for me. I would hope that would happen to many more women.”