Review: 'Hairy Who' takes a trip to the big screen (video)

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By Sailor Holladay

“What becomes of a moment like the Imagist moment?” the narrator of Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists, Chicago theater star Cheryl Lynn Bruce asks.

While Andy Warhol and The Factory were busy using drugs and creating objective pop art, a group of mostly sober, working-class men and women in Chicago, The Chicago Imagists, were creating a different kind of utopic movement and a different kind of art: a psychedelic surrealist art inspired by objects such as comic strips, sideshow circus acts, moving cartoons from the 1930’s, pinball machines, Plexiglas, exotic dancers, ads, toys, and candy wrappers. The art had its own feel situated in the bodies and culture of Chicago and in conversation with the Chicago Blues and Chicago’s street musicians.

“So I say New York was cool and we were hot,” Suellen Rocca, one of the Imagist says. “And it was very subjective, and the things we painted and drew were parts of our lives, were autobiographical, were very, very personal.”

Rather than listing their art, The Imagist's art show catalogs were comic books, becoming their own art objects.   

This film animates vintage photographs of vintage Chicago streets and Imagist art, interviews the Chicago Imagists and other artists as well as art collectors and curators, and creates my favorite thing to watch in a documentary, original animations, to tell the tale of the prolific but obscure Chicago Imagists.

Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists’ film director, Leslie Buchbinder first learned of the Chicago Imagists as a young teenager when her parents started collecting Imagist work and became friends with many of the artists. Buchbinder’s parents even commissioned one of the most famous Imagists, Polish-Chicagoan Ed Paschke, to paint their family portrait.

Art can make time stand still and that’s what the Imagists did amidst the Vietnam War and the racial tension, economic disparity, and creative repression of Chicago in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. Ignored by the frigid New York pop art scene and opposed to minimalism, recent graduates from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Hairy Who, The False Image, and Nonplussed Some, made work oozing from the body.

The Imagist’s work can’t really be categorized and that’s what makes it interesting. It bites off as much of the modern world as it can chew and then some, operating like a flash-gestating machine, eliminating through all its orifices vibrating interpretations of
its surroundings.

As one of the Imagists, Gary Panter states, “Everything in the 60’s could be co-opted immediately, but the Hairy Who couldn’t be co-opted. It had embraced insanity and psychosis. And you don’t necessarily sell toothbrushes with that.”

This sort of inability to be co-opted can banish an artist in a capitalist society. Unlike Warhol, you won’t find a Jim Nutt or Karl Wirsum image on a shoulder bag at Target. Publisher and curator Dan Nadel asked about the Hairy Who in art:21 magazine, “Is it possible that the artists saying the most about being human have often been the most overlooked?”

The Chicago Imagists were also unique in their prominence of female artists. Five of the fourteen Imagists were women.

Sarah Canright, an artist of the Nonplussed Some speaks to this, “There was great equitability between the men and the women. We were all in it together. There was no experienced-between-us sexism, no ‘this is the person doing the important work and you’re doing the follow-up.’ That was simply not part of it and I do know that was part of it in New York and it wasn’t until things formalized more and the gallery system moved in, and money started exchanging hands that the separation occurred, but it was never between the artists, it was the way the world perceived people and the world did support more of the male artists than the female artists.”

This film casts a wide net of potential fans: Chicagoans, watchers of art documentaries, those interested in comics, all art makers, lovers of psychedelia and the underdog, art historians, and women. I think that makes all of us.

More can be found out about the Chicago Imagists, including an archive of their collections here:

Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists plays at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco on November 18th at 7 and 9:15 pm. Buy tickets

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