Anyone who suffers from the misperception that all contemporary art is esoteric and impenetrable ought to get an eyeful of the new Karl Wirsum show at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, "Karl Wirsum: Winsome Work(some)."
A lifelong Chicagoan associated with a circle known as the Hairy Who and the larger trend of Chicago Imagism, Wirsum delivers an art of immediate jolts, inspired by aliens, robots, sports sluggers and old comics.
Along with other members of the Hairy Who, Wirsum studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1960s. He, like his friends, was also inspired by the strong surrealist collection at the Art Institute. But Wirsum seems to be influenced just as much, if not more, by the thrumming, pulsing city life around him. Shop signs, advertisements, elevated trains, sports fans on their way to Bulls games - all of it is grist for Wirsum's mill.
While Wirsum works in several different mediums - including painting, drawing and three-dimensional, painted-wood figures - his visual language is highly consistent, employing brilliant colors, stylized figures and sharp outlines marking off areas of flat color. There's a childlike exuberance to a lot of this work; not surprisingly, during a recent Saturday night artist's talk, Wirsum described his affinity for aliens and robots, even making a self-portrait look decidedly nonhuman.
Wirsum's art seems more about visual pop than heavy concepts. While his work doesn't resonate that much with me personally, I can see the appeal of his fun, funky approach to art-making, and kids will probably enjoy this exhibition as much as adults. (In fact, I was in the gallery at the same time as a group of schoolkids and overheard one young girl make the astute observation that one of Wirsum's figures reminded her of an Aztec god. Maybe she can ghostwrite my reviews!)
As one enters the main galleries, "Winsome Work(some)" is preceded by the companion exhibition "Hairy Who (and some others)," a show of other Chicago artists active at the same time as Wirsum. While some, like Jim Nutt, work in a style similar to Wirsum's (boldly graphic, cartoonlike figures), others are more painterly and have a darker emotional undercurrent to their work, like the well-known Imagist Ed Paschke.
One of the best surprises, however, is the work of Robert Lostutter, which I had not encountered before. Lostutter's images blending human and bird forms are such seamless hybrids they almost don't register as the surrealist juxtapositions that they are. Like Paschke's, his work is colorful, technically accomplished and often quite beautiful, but pulses with a dark energy that forms a contrast to Wirsum's sprightly work.