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‘Chicago Calling’ offers an inside look at the city’s outsider artists

“Chicago 1984” by Mr. Imagination/Gregory Warmack. 1984, foundry sandstone and paint. Part of the exhibit “Chicago Calling: Art Against the Flow” at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art.

“Chicago 1984” by Mr. Imagination/Gregory Warmack. 1984, foundry sandstone and paint. Part of the exhibit “Chicago Calling: Art Against the Flow” at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art. | COLLECTION OF ROBERT ALTER AND SHERRY SIEGEL. JOHN FAIER PHOTO

Outside of a relatively small group of insiders and specialists, many people, including some in the broader international art world, probably don’t realize that Chicago has long been one of the leading centers for outsider or non-mainstream art.

Driving home that reality is the core mission of the largest and most ambitious exhibition ever mounted by Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, a 27-year-old museum that has been at the forefront of displaying and promoting such work.

Titled “Chicago Calling: Art Against the Flow,” the show features 79 works by 10 of the most influential outsider artists who have and lived and worked in the city from the late 19th century through the present.

“Chicago Calling: Art Against the Flow”

When: Through Jan. 6
Where: Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, 756 N. Milwaukee
Admission: $5
Info: (312) 243-9088 or art.org

Aside from one previous exchange exhibition with a museum in Europe, this is the first Intuit exhibition to tour internationally, with future stops at four institutions, including the prestigious Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the Outsider Art Museum in Amsterdam.

In short, this presentation is a coup for both Intuit and Chicago in general. But it is not without its shortcomings.

In reality, “Chicago Calling” has two faces — what is seen and explained in the accompanying 180-page catalog that is available for $22 and the actual exhibition on view. The former makes the essential point that for several reasons, including Chicago’s geographical and philosophical distance from the art trends dominating New York, it was ideally fertile ground for self-taught art to develop.

“Chicago has evolved into the center for the recognition, scholarship, promotion, collection and exhibition of non-mainstream art, historically and institutionally as well as geographically,” write independent curator Kenneth C. Burkhart and Lisa Stone, curator of the Roger Brown Study Collection of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the exhibition’s organizers.

It’s a bold statement, and it might be true. But it comes off as overblown, because this show and catalog don’t prove the point, if it’s provable at all. That would require much more comparative analysis. What they do make clear is Chicago’s central importance in this realm, and isn’t that impressive enough?    

“Untitled (Black Cat”), by William Dawson. 1980, acrylic on board. Part of the exhibit “Chicago Calling: Art Against the Flow” at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art. | COLLECTION OF MICHAEL AND CINDY NOLAND. JOHN FAIER PHOTO

The catalog discusses the history of outsider art in Chicago, providing much valuable context, including a selected list of relevant exhibitions that have taken place in the city from 1941 through 2018. But as far as it goes, the text still feels like only a beginning, with little detail, for example, about the collectors and dealers who played a key role in advancing these artists.

Unfortunately, the show itself has virtually none of the background included in the catalog. There is a minimal, two-paragraph introduction at the beginning and some other short explanatory texts scattered throughout, but that’s it.

So, in essence, what is on view is an overview of the 10 showcased artists arranged into 10 thematic sections with titles such as “Venerate, With Affection” and “Strange Phenomena, Imagined Realms.” And that’s ultimately all right, because these well-chosen creators easily carry the exhibition on their own.

Arguably, the star is Henry Darger, a recluse whose work was never shown during his lifetime and was only saved from destruction by the landlords of his one-room Lincoln Park apartment, which has been re-created at Intuit.

Since his death in 1973, he has become something an art-world star. He is best known for “In the Realms of the Unreal,” a 15,145-page tale of the Vivian Girls that features a fascinating mix of appropriation and his own draftsmanship. All four of his works on view tie into that project and give a taste of its epic scope.         

While the show’s subject matter runs the gamut, Chicago plays an integral role. A dandy paean to the city is a 1984 bas-relief made of foundry sandstone and paint by Mr. Imagination aka Gregory Warmack. It manages to cogently capture a view of the skyline and a segment of the L in just 5¾ by 7½ inches, with the words “Chicago, Ill.” boldly rendered across the bottom.

Bring a burst of color to "Chicago Calling" are “Cliff Raven” and “Wife of Cliff Raven,” a pair of acrylic paintings by Pauline Simon.

Bringing a burst of color to “Chicago Calling” are “Cliff Raven” (left) and “Wife of Cliff Raven,” a pair of undated acrylic paintings by Pauline Simon. | COLLECTION OF CHARLES AND CAMILLE BAUM. JOHN FAIER PHOTO. 

Other highlights include “Untitled (Red Bird and Leaves)” (1974), a striking 53-inch wide triptych by Lee Godie, who is best known for her flamboyant portraits; William Dawson’s “Untitled (Black Cat)” (1980), a haunting image of cat with frowning, mask-like visage, and Pauline Simon’s twin pointillist portraits with the most electric colors in the exhibition: “Cliff Raven” and “Wife of Cliff Raven” (undated).

This exhibition is part of Art Design Chicago, an ambitious, yearlong series of exhibitions and other programs spearheaded by the Terra Foundation for American Art. It is designed to bring enhanced attention to the city’s pivotal yet sometimes unsung accomplishments across a range of artistic and design disciplines.

And few stories in the city’s art history deserve telling more than the one showcased in “Chicago Calling.”