It’s always been hard to look at the fantastic imagery of Richard Hull and not think about the Chicago Imagists who preceded him at the School of the Art Institute by about a decade. His work is typically humorous, defiant, precise, and cheerfully wacky. It has the cranky obsessiveness of a self-taught outsider and the aggressive lines and colors of comic books. In most of his forty year career, however, he has not represented the human figure. He has been called an “abstract imagist”
In many ways, the paintings in this exhibition are not much different from previous work. They still have the flattened, bulbous eruptions of linear protoplasm. But nothing is left of the architectural space suggested in early paintings, and by packaging his forms within a basic shape that resembles a head and shoulders, the viewer is now confronted by portraits of human beings. So now we have a moral content that may be queried. What kind of people are these? Are they to be loved, feared, trusted, helped, obeyed, admired ? As with most of the people represented by the Imagists – they do not appear to be responsible adults. They’re all nut cases – unaware of any world outside their own perseverating mind. They’re caught up in some kind of twisted mental process or an alternative reality with a few too many dimensions. Perhaps they are pondering one of the classic mathematical problems that have bedeviled great minds for centuries. The artist tells us that this series was inspired by the Klein bottle – a nineteenth century topographical construction that defies a conventional understanding of three dimensional space.
The main gallery of the exhibition is rather intense. The viewer is confronted by the same wacko psychology on every wall, as well as rising from the floor as freestanding “mirrors”, painted on both sides. Rather than presenting a human image for contemplation – it’s as if the inner workings of a disturbed mind was bubbling out from a gate to another world - like the monsters that pop out from every dark corner of a carnival fun house. The viewer is immersed in the endless loop of the artist’s repetitive cogitation. The work is intense in close-up detail, as well, with painted surfaces that often feel teased, tormented, and reworked many times.
You can feel the careful consideration given to balancing shapes and colors, and there is a variety of emotion from the black/yellow anger of “Joan of Arc” to the green/red contentment of “Arrived”. Even without any sharp angles, it has a strong, assertive appeal. None of these portraits, however, seem to represent anyone who is compassionate or rational. And there is no sense that the space outside each figure has been taken into consideration. It’s just whatever the inner turmoil has left unfilled. As a group of paintings, it’s fun and exciting. But as a group of the people they might represent, it would be a bunch of high energy psychotics – which is how so many other prominent Chicago artists of our time have viewed humanity. Hopefully, someday we’ll see Hull’s portraits hung side-by-side with similar portraits by Nutt, Rossi, Pyle, and Wirsum. Even more hopefully, however, let there come a day when more Chicago artists, like Kerry James Marshall, offer a positive vision of humanity. If we all accept ourselves as crazy monsters, there’s not much incentive to improve behavior.