Gladys Nilsson (b.1940, Chicago) studied painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 1958-62. In 1973, the artist was among the first women to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, USA). She lives and works in Chicago.
Gladys Nilsson first came to prominence in 1966, as a member of a group of graduates of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, Karl Wirsum, Art Green and Jim Falconer) who exhibited under the moniker ‘Hairy Who’ at Chicago’s Hyde Park Art Center. Despite only showing works together for three years between 1966 – 69, these exhibitions are now cited as the first defining moments of Chicago Imagism. The group are enjoying a recent resurgence of interest, with a blockbuster exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, Hairy Who? (2018, IL, USA) and HOW CHICAGO! IMAGISTS 1960s & 70s which opens 15 March 2019 at Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Arts (London, UK). Gladys Nilsson’s work and pieces from her collection are also included in the ground-breaking touring exhibition, Outliers and American Vanguard Art (2018, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; 2019, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA, USA).
In Nilsson’s practice, she seeks to celebrate the small victories in life. Raised in a blue-collar family, she highlights day to day routines as important – simply the act of getting up, getting dressed and going to work. Monumentalising the humdrum, she plots big moments and absurd twists for the many idiosyncratic characters that fill her works. Playful narratives begin in the palpable world - a self-proclaimed voyeur, she looks closely at human interactions which she then transforms into a universe of her own creation. Favouring humour over realism, fluid limbs unnaturally curve and contort.
Unencumbered by the rules of gravity, scale or proportion, figures of varying sizes fill the frame of Nilsson’s works. Drawing inspiration from fine art and mass culture, the artist attributes rapid scale change to both an appreciation for Renaissance alter pieces (donors are included in the composition in the form of small portraits) and growing up with the Sears catalogue which formatted clothing advertisements with a large image alongside smaller illustrations of the available colours.
The women depicted in Nilsson’s works are not created to be ridiculed, with the artist instead suggesting that they are all the same woman, thereby encouraging the viewer to see elements of themselves in the sometimes-cumbersome poses. Each piece in Unencumbereddepicts a centralised female figure engaged in a small feat, peppered with small, unusual onlookers from Nilsson’s fertile imagination.
Highlighted through the works presented at Hales London is Nilsson’s sophisticated use of line. While drawing has always been structurally integral to the artist’s paintings, the sketches are usually disguised under a dense layering of watercolour – however, in these works, this process is revealed. Celebrating gesture, the artist allows the viewer to see the rough drawing, scribbling and erasing followed by lines growing darker and sharper, with Nilsson stating that these recent works ‘explore the joy of moving.’ Her confident application of lines snake around organic forms with ‘a vitality and independence similar to the linear patterns of Celtic designs or late medieval manuscript illuminations.’
The A Walk… series showcases Nilsson’s distinctive approach to collage, in keeping with the themes and style that define her practice, and further contribute to dreamlike stories with cut out images from books and magazines of people, buildings, makeup, fruit and clothing. Respected art critic Roberta Smith discussed Nilsson’s recent work in collage in the New York Times:
‘It is always exhilarating when a respected artist saves the best for later in life. Such is the case with Gladys Nilsson, the deft and sardonic water-colourist of human entanglement and founding member of Chicago’s rambunctious Hairy Who. Ms. Nilsson is now in her mid-70s…she is doing her strongest work yet.’
In the artist’s unruly fantasy world, playful figures are alive with energy and even the most boring daily tasks become comedic routines, the works celebrate humanity in all of its forms.
Gladys Nilsson: Unencumbered, featuring works from 2004 through to today, runs alongside HOW CHICAGO! IMAGISTS 1960s & 70s at Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Arts, which features historic works by the artist. Together, the two exhibitions provide an insight into two critical stages of the artist’s career.