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Who are the Chicago Imagists, and why are they in Sydney?

Gina Fairley

Roger Brown was a pivotal character in the Chicago scene, an artist whose influence has made its way to the Hughes Gallery.
Who are the Chicago Imagists, and why are they in Sydney?

A detail of Brown's painting, Presidential Portrait; courtesy Hughes Gallery.

Little is known of the Chicago Imagists in Australia, a group that gained currency in the late 1960s through to the 1980s, and who are today icons of American art history. Among them was Roger Brown, whose painting Land of Lincoln (1978) was the catalogue cover for the important exhibition, Who Chicago?, which toured to the UK in 1981, banding together and branding the group.

While they did not endorse the label of ‘a collective’ or have a shared ideology, what distinguished these Chicago artists was a desire to work outside of the NY contemporary art trends of the day, their works drawing on popular culture, the self-taught and a kind of surreal folkism – staking out their own time and place.  

So why then show them in Sydney?

Evan Hughes, who has passionately curated this exhibition, told ArtsHub that its inspiration was Gareth Sansom returning from an overseas exhibition in the 1980s with a bundle of catalogues, including works by the Chicago Imagists, and circulating them around the Hughes camp of the day.

While we will never know the direct impact of that gesture, Hughes has fleshed out this connection in a back-room exhibition that draws a bow to that history, with works by Australian and New Zealand artists that share the same sentiments of surface and pictorial energy as Brown and the Imagists.

You can start to understand the gravitas of this exhibition, Roger Brown: His American Icons. It is the kind of show you would expect to find in one of our state galleries, not a commercial gallery; the level of scholarship and desire to extend that dialogue, and connection with, Australian artists has been overlooked until now.

This is not one exhibition, it is three: a rare group of Roger Brown’s paintings, the Australian counter point, and a third carefully curated ‘homage to the studio home of Roger Brown made from works from my father’s collection,’ explained Hughes, many of which echo Brown’s own collection.

Anyone who has entered the upper levels of the Hughes Gallery will draw the connection immediately. It is a veritable feast for the eyes and the creative soul, non-hierarchical and curious above all.

One of the great influences of Brown’s paintings was his own passion for collecting; from flea markets to thrift stores, amusement parks to garden accoutrements, Brown was an intuitive collector who treated each object with equal footing.

It is perhaps best illustrated in a later work in the Sydney exhibition, Virtual Sill Life #22: Service with a Smile (1996), a moody rhythmic sky with a doomed plane, offset by a shelf of ceramics, the central vase smashed and reconstructed. It embraces ‘Brown’s sense of honouring the object rather than just using them,’ exlpained Hughes.

Courtesy Hughes Gallery.

Working with Lisa Stone, Curator of the Roger Brown Study Collection at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Hughes has pulled together paintings that spans from 1968 to1997, the year Brown died of an AIDS-related illness.

Among them is an example of Brown’s most sought-after skyscraper paintings, populated by stylised silhouettes, usually against a garish yellow glow. Chicago is a city known for its architecture, and Brown’s Post-Modern Res/Erection with observation deck (1984), as the title of this painting suggests, is a towering penis stacked with bawdy vignettes with a tone of voyeurism, common in Brown’s work. The politics of sexuality was also never far, interested in the everyday mood of the time.

Courtesy Hughes Gallery.

Persistent motifs and themes punctuated Brown’s career, such as the banded rhythm of clouds or vegetation, cars and suburbia. All these are represented in this well researched exhibition.

San Andres Fault Line (1995) is one of the stand-out works in this exhibition; Frank Stella-esq in character with its irregularly shaped canvas. Houses teeter with a precariousness of living on the edge of a landscape both metaphorically and geographically familiar to Brown.

Courtesy Hughes Gallery.

Presidential Portrait (1986) – pictured top – now in a private collection in Sydney, was included in Brown’s 1987 retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Gallery in Washington DC. Set in a stratosphere above suburban bliss, with clumsy cheesy grins stylistically intentional, irony sits central to this painting.  

It is not a painting of American Icons per se – a kind of perpetuation or critique of the myth – rather Brown’s images ‘interlace irony with his desired message; they use a playful gesture or narrative to convey his statements,’ according to Hughes.

Icons or not, these works remain palpable and engaging to an Australian audience.

The Hughes Gallery has never looked towards other galleries for direction. It has consistently opened a 'side door' to other visual vocabularies driven by the passion of the gallery’s founder, Ray Hughes, to collect; from West Africa to New Guinea, German Expressionism, Jean Dubeffet and Anish Kapoor in the 1980s, to being the first commercial gallery in Australia to show contemporary Chinese art in the early 2000s.

This exhibition marks yet another of those moments. It is one of the gallery’s most ambitious international projects and will be followed by a partner exhibition in May that takes a look at Chicago now through the work of seven artists, taking its cue from the celebrated AfterImage exhibition at De Paul University's Art Museum in September 2012.

At this moment of international focus in Sydney with the Biennale, we suggest to take a look at another way of doing it – a gallerist with a vision to build partnerships and share across time. The back-room exhibition by local artists is testament to that culture at the Hughes Gallery.

Roger Brown: His American Icons 
19 March – 29 April
The Hughes Gallery
270 Devonshire Street, Surry Hills

The exhibition will be followed by Now Chicago! opening 2 May – 10 June.


About the author

Gina Fairley covers the Visual Arts nationally for ArtsHub. Based in Sydney you can follow her on Twitter @ginafairley and Instagram at fairleygina.