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Against the Grain

Against the Grain

A colorful new exhibition at the RISD Museum focuses on the lasting influence of contemporary American artists working at the periphery of mainstream modernism.

A colorful new exhibition at the RISD Museum focuses on the lasting influence of contemporary American artists working at the periphery of mainstream modernism. What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present traces the trajectories of four artists’ hubs or collectives that sprang up within the last half century outside more traditional cultural centers: the Hairy Who in Chicago in the late 1960s, Funk in San Francisco around the same period, the mid-1970s collective Destroy All Monsters in Ann Arbor, MI and Forcefield, a group of RISD and other artists who banded together in the late 1990s and early 2000s at Fort Thunder here in Providence.

“The groups and individual artists represented in What Nerve! were not naïve or unaware of the art world around them,” explains guest curator Dan Nadel, author of such books as Art Out of Time: Unknown Comic Visionaries, 1900–1969 and Electrical Banana: Masters of Psychedelic Art. “They simply trafficked in an alternate history.”

Nadel worked with Judith Tannenbaum, the museum’s former Richard Brown Baker Curator of Contemporary Art, who stepped in as a consulting curator in developing the show over the past few years. “In going against the canon, these artists devised distinctive idioms and created works that are sometimes narrative, often earnest, frequently transgressive and always individualistic,” Tannenbaum says.

She and Nadel identified six influential “spoke artists” who link the four diverse groups together – William Copley, Jack Kirby, Elizabeth Murray, Gary Panter, Christina Ramberg and H.C. Westermann, each of whom has clearly influenced their contemporaries along with subsequent generations of artists. In addition, these core artists all embrace meticulous craftsmanship and a quirky approach to critiquing contemporary culture – whether they’re commenting on the tragedy of war, the objectification of women or the absurdity of politics.

A number of motifs point to the “nervy” aspects of the exhibition, including intense colors, bold patterns, cartoon-like imagery, hyper-sexualized figures and plays on language, among others. “Rather than attempting to compete with mainstream modernism, the influences of these artists ran towards comics, folk art and vernacular signage – as well as the vulgar, profane and out-of-bounds,” Nadel explains.

The 180 paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs and videos on view are loosely arranged by the four groups highlighted, accompanied by samples of the posters, zines and other ephemera the artists made to promote their work. Copley’s sexually explicit images give way to humorous, painstakingly detailed examinations of the human form by Jim Nutt. Paintings by Gary Panter alluding to the oppression of Native Americans stand side-by-side with Cary Loren’s outlandish black-and-white photographs. Elizabeth Murray’s cartoonish rectangle-exploding paintings referencing common household objects play off the precision and exactitude of Christina Ramberg’s look at the objectification of women.

Supported by a grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation, What Nerve! continues through January 4, 2015 and is accompanied by a fully illustrated 368-page book by the same name.