What Nerve!

by Jonathan Griffin

Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Providence


Jim Nutt, Her Face Fits, 1968

The rambunctious exhibition “What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present” began life as an idea for a show about the Hairy Who. Seeking to broaden the scope of the project, curator Dan Nadel traced the lines of influence around the 1960s group of Chicago Imagists to include an alternative, subversive history of modern art that is little studied in art colleges and under-represented in museum collections.

The precedents and antecedents he identified belong to three groups from around the United States: the Funk movement, from the San Francisco Bay area in the 1950s and 60s; Destroy All Monsters, the Ann Arbor, Michigan, group of artist-musicians that famously included Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw; and the equally eclectic Forcefield, which operated in Providence, Rhode Island, from 1996–2003. Between them, the members of these four groups sustain a continuous tradition that spans the last fifty years.

Independent curator Nadel, who ran the alternative publishing house Picturebox from 2004 to 2013, says he wanted to provide a context for thinking about those artists he loves best, and who he feels are currently neglected institutionally, even if they are increasingly revered by artists. To this end, around the four artistic “hubs” he has arranged a number of “spokes” – artists who provided links, or who never fitted into any single movement. Christina Ramberg, Elizabeth Murray, H.C. Westermann, William Copley, Gary Panter and Jack Kirby, Nadel demonstrates through individual presentations, were clearly in aesthetic conversation with other artists in “What Nerve!”

While the academic mainstream was engrossed in abstraction in the 1950s and 60s, artists such as Westermann and Copley were producing ribald figurative imagery that pulled from cartoons and folk art. “What Nerve!” shows how humorous, grotesque representations of the human body proliferated underground while non-representation was championed by the art cognoscenti.

All these artists, says Nadel, shared a disdain for art trends. It is no coincidence that they mostly hail from outside the art centres of New York and Los Angeles. “They were not artists who were interested in keeping up, or in what we’d now call ‘dialogue,’” he says. “They weren’t writing manifestos or contributing to magazines.”

A tremendously informative catalogue, published in conjunction with the exhibition, is Nadel’s attempt to tell the story of this artistic lineage in full. While many of the artists in “What Nerve!” have colourful biographies, Nadel says that he is wary of overemphasising this aspect. “The work defies any easy one-liners. The story is the work.”


First published: The Art Newspaper, September 2014