Pinball meets Paschke at a new art exhibition in the western suburbs. The group of artists of the 1960s and ‘70s who became known as the Chicago Imagists were known for graphic and playful artwork – much like pinball machines.
Chicago Tonight visited the Elmhurst Art Museum to find out more about these wizards of painting and pinball in the exhibition “Kings & Queens: Pinball, Imagists and Chicago.” The exhibit is on view through May 7.
Phil Ponce: It’s not every day that an art museum invites visitors to play pinball alongside the artwork.
But some of the world’s finest pinball machines were made in Chicago. And so was the artwork made by a loose affiliation of artists known as the Hairy Who and the Imagists.
Jenny Gibbs, executive director, Elmhurst Art Museum: I wanted to do a show focusing on the Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists for a couple years. I first encountered the work of Jim Nutt in 2011 at a retrospective at the MCA. I was an out-of-towner, I was here for a conference, I’d never seen his work before and I was like, “Woah, how did I not know this existed, this amazing work?”
A few years later I find myself directing the Elmhurst Art Museum, and I know that our neighbors, Elmhurst College – which is just across the street – have probably the strongest collection of work by the Chicago Imagists and the Hairy Who in the world, which is normally on view in their library.
Ponce: She noticed that some of the artwork shared characteristics with what is called the “backglass” of pinball machines – and it was no accident.
Gibbs: It’s not just that they look nice next to each other – they did in fact influence each other.
This work (above) the artist was Roy Parker, he was the one that really made the connection to Jim Nutt for me, with me with these super-flat images and Jim Nutt as you know did a lot of his paintings on reverse-painted Plexiglas, which look like a kind of pickup on the technique on the backglass. And then Constantino Mitchell and Ed Paschke actually collaborated on a couple of machines together, one of which he have here.
Ponce: The show also features the late Ed Paschke’s personal pinball machine. Paschke himself curated a show on pinball art at the Chicago Cultural Center in 1982.
The visual relationship between pinball and imagist painting is more than superficial.
Gibbs: You’ll see a couple of things. You’ll see the super-flat imagery. It’s very hard to create an impression of depth when you’re reverse-painting or screen printing on the back of Plexiglas.
You’ll see these strong containing lines, you’ll see a lot of the bright, kind of acid-colors, there’s a great work in the show by Ed Flood which you’ll see right away looks like a game board or a backglass. It’s a box with multiple layers of Plexiglas in it, so very directly riffing on inspiration from the arcade, and then of course you know there’s the crazy imagery. They were really kind of working, I think, in opposition to what was happening on the East Coast. The East Coast was doing minimalism, “less is more,” and Chicago was doing “more is more.”
Ponce: The exhibition is called “Kings and Queens,” and it tilts its attention toward other Chicago artists as well, including Karl Wirsum, Christina Ramberg and Suellen Rocca, who flipped for the artful arcade.
Suellen Rocca: First of all the work is wonderful, just really wonderful examples of work by these artists, and having the pinball, these vintage pinball machines, as part of the exhibition, I think is brilliant … and the fact that they’re not here as objects – that they can actually be played. I just love the idea of walking through and hearing this ding-ding-ding, you know, and seeing people play the machines.
Ponce: Besides Chicago, the artists all share a common line in their resumes.
Gibbs: I think what all of the artists in the show have in common is that they studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the link amongst all of them is Ray Yoshida, who taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and we have one of his works in the show as well. So he was tremendously influential, and he was someone who really drew from the vernacular and encouraged his students to be open to all influences.
Note: This story originally aired on Chicago Tonight on March 13.
March 2: Two new shows at the Chicago Cultural Center open doors to a local arts movement from 50 years ago.
Aug. 9, 2016: An inside look at the world of pinball machines with the president of the world's largest pinball company, Gary Stern.
Dec. 30, 2015: Surrealism is the focus of a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art. We'll get a tour of the weird and the wonderful.