I’ve been thinking a lot about Karl Wirsum lately. As luck would have it, a selection of his work titled Mr. Whatzit: Selections from the 1980s is currently showing at Derek Eller Gallery through October 8, 2017. What follows is a review I wrote of Wirsum’s work that was originally published in the New Art Examiner, Summer Issue, 1984. Because the original NAE closed pre-Internet, this review has been unavailable to read online. Coincidentally, this review includes Martian Arts Made with Pre-War Rubber, which is also in the show at Derek Eller Gallery.
Karl Wirsum at Phyllis Kind Gallery, Chicago
The rich playfulness, multi-layered nature and intimate size of Karl Wirsum’s work has, for some people, obscured its recognition as great art. But for me, the unassuming freshness and seemingly effortless spontaneity of the work, its inventive design and craftsmanship, coupled with a precise abstract vocabulary, make Wirsum’s art defy the machinations of the art history game and truly achieve higher ground.
Wirsum’s recent exhibit of 25 paintings and drawings was his fourth one-person show since his Museum of Contemporary Art sculpture retrospective in 1981; he has exhibited regularly since the mid-sixties. His recent work displays those same qualities that earlier distinguished Wirsum from most of his contemporaries: craftsmanship, variation on a theme, and depth of content.
In the drawing Cat Burglar Kicking Out the Jams a large fellow, clad in red thermal under-wear and a mask, dons a pair of blue checked pants (Note: the image used above is not the actual drawing, but the preliminary drawing). It is not clear whether the mask is covering just his eyes or another determined looking and larger mask. The pants are disheveled, and the thief balances on one leg while kicking his other leg through the pants, thus “kicking out the jams”. The red thermals are drawn with a firm contour line, given even weight by very subtle hatch marks which merge into a soft, overall rubbed-in red. The thermals are further defined by an assortment of curved lines depicting seams, wrinkles, and muscles. In stark contrast, the blue checked pants have no hatch marks or rubbed-in color – the check pattern is drawn boldly. The wrinkles in the right pants leg form a sine wave, which is opposed by the single outward curve of the right knee. If, for a minute, we assume the image to be metaphorically autobiographic, an interesting narrative unfolds: twice masked, dressed in thermals (for protection) the (hidden) artist attempts to put on an uncooperative pair of pants (covering/facade) and is “caught with his pants down” by us, his viewers. The unpretentious subject matter of Wirsum’s work often belies the beauty of his drawing as well as the complexity of his content.
The diptych drawing Fat Ternal Twins, whose title is one of Wirsum’s more revealing puns, is a nice example of his virtuosity when composing variations on a theme. Two jolly fat boys, drawn entirely of curves, sit in identical poses with their hands on their laps. One of them wears a shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a very wide tie, his hair parted on the side, and pursed, smiling lips. The other wears a T-shirt, has a crew cut, squinting crossed eyes, and is sticking his tongue out. Wirsum has rendered both “twins” in a similarly open manner, with the minor variation primarily in the schematic abstraction of the feet, knees, hands and forearms. Both figures are as obviously the same as they are different, revealing Wirsum’s tightly controlled vocabulary of line and shape; there is no room for arbitrary marks. The abstraction does not alter the form of the twins, but their personalities.
Wirsum has used the bilaterally symmetrical single figure as a cornerstone in his work since the beginning. Martian Arts Made with Pre-War Rubber is perhaps an example of Wirsum at his most complex. His major theme – linking a myriad of fantastic, playfully exciting personages and objects with our matter-of-fact world – is presented here as a wonderful Mouse-from-Mars inflatable toy. The title places it outside our time and place, freeing it from our sedentary realities. At the same time, the object it purports to be, an inexpensive inflatable toy from the 1930-40s, is familiar and easily accessible to the viewer. This gives the image the springboard it needs to gain entrance to the viewer’s subconscious, where it can deliver its punch.
Wirsum’s work, unlike much of contemporary art, is free of melancholia. Like Isaac Bashevitz Singer’s simple but honest hero Gimpel the Fool, Wirsum’s goofy characters often inhabit a dangerous, unpredictable territory. Yet, like Gimpel, they manage, whether from divine intervention or sheer luck, to find a happy ending.