The wonderful exhibition ‘What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present’ proposed a possible counter history to textbook accounts of how the major postwar avant-garde movements in the US evolved. The show functioned as both a necessary educational corrective and a demonstration of how wildly diverse the range of sub-cultural artistry has always been outside of the dominant New York art world. Curated by Dan Nadel (former publisher of the excellent and now defunct PictureBox press) with Judith Tannenbaum, ‘What Nerve!’ was sub-divided into four sections. Each showcased work from one of four primary ‘hubs’ of underground activity scattered over the country: Hairy Who from Chicago (1966–69); the Funk artists from the San Francisco Bay Area (1967); Destroy All Monsters from Ann Arbor (1973–77); and Providence’s own Forcefield (1996–2003).
The exhibition was not arranged chronologically, allowing the viewer to form independent connections between the aesthetics of the various hubs, which were all either too short-lived or too ad-hoc to be legitimately called ‘movements’ in any official sense. While some of the figures on display are certainly now well known as individual artists – Joan Brown, Mike Kelley, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Peter Saul and William T. Wiley, among others – it was fascinating to see their work in the context of these early groupings. One could identify tendencies that were expanded more intensely later on, and others that were abandoned some time after the period documented here. The single Ken Price ceramic sculpture in the Funk segment, Red (1961) – a sleek crimson half-egg with purplish rods peeking through – could be seen as a perfect study for the dissected geologic forms that he would make some 20 years down the line. By contrast, Jim Shaw’s work in the Destroy All Monsters section – appropriately crude and ultra-punk collages – looks several levels apart from his intricately detailed paintings and elaborate installations of the past decade.
The collective spirit was quite different within each historical moment. In the case of the Funk artists – who were grouped together by the art historian Peter Selz for a single exhibition, ‘Funk’, at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1967 – they were connected more by a shared aesthetic marked by dark humour and brilliant colours than by true communal activity. (The majority of the works on display in ‘What Nerve!’ were from this show.) The Hairy Who were more explicit in their collective aims: the six graduates from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago formed a group in order to display their idiosyncratic, vibrant and pun-rich work at the city’s Hyde Park Art Center. Destroy All Monsters, formed in Detroit in 1973, were visual artists as well as a band that pioneered a form of psychedelic noise-punk. Their primary group activities were channelled into music and publishing a samizdat magazine, though the members never exhibited their individual art works together. The most contemporary of the four hubs, Forcefield, did exhibit as a group, most notably at the 2002 Whitney Biennial. They produced a neon-hued hallucinatory stream of prints and posters, films and videos, costumes and sculptures, tapes and records. The cities that birthed each of these hubs were, at the time, worlds away from what was happening culturally in New York. Each had an under-the-radar, blue-collar atmosphere that nurtured and defined the outlaw sensibility that courses through all of the artists in this show.
Nadel selected six individual artists to orbit around these four geographic hubs, each either directly informing the work of these groups or at least tapping into a similar vein. William Copley, Jack Kirby, Elizabeth Murray, Gary Panter, Christina Ramberg and H.C. Westermann formed a kind of border around the galleries that helped historicize the main sections. Though the genealogy outlined was sometimes explicit – in an ongoing chain of devotional pilgrimages, we are told that Kirby, the great comics pioneer, was visited at his home by a young Panter in 1976, just as Forcefield later contacted Panter, who by then had designed the sets for Pee-wee’s Playhouse and produced influential underground comics – visitors often had to speculate about the connective tissues between these maverick artists.
Westermann’s lithographic series ‘See America First’ (1968) depicts over a dozen bleak American landscapes with stray cartoonish figures ambling about in a kind of bad-trip haze, a mood that flowed directly into almost all of the work in the exhibition. Nightmarish states of mind could be found from Brown’s mutilated and reconstructed raccoon sculpture Fur Rat (1962), to the ecstatic and synapse-destroying videos from Forcefield. Portraiture could also be seen throughout, often classically composed but twisted by the influences of comics and drug culture; for instance, Kirby’s fantastical Tribes Trilogy (1976), Nutt’s hilariously monstrous Her Face Fits (1968) and Niagara’s various coloured-pencil depictions of otherworldly female faces, such as Sacrifice (1975) or The Key (1974). Visible, too, was a wide spectrum of grotesque bodies and graphic sexuality. After cycling through the galleries – taking in Copley’s rough-hewn soft pornographic paintings, Nilsson’s beautiful watercolours of layered bodies and floating limbs, and Forcefield’s mannequin army sporting post-apocalypse warrior garb – the trio of Ramberg’s modest paintings of corseted female backsides, rendered in muted greys, golds and blacks arrived like a cool glass of water after a spicy meal. The shock lay in how sleek and sinister these paintings seem despite their remove from the more extreme shapes and colours that preceded them in the sensory-overloaded galleries.
Emphasizing these vernacular tendencies and wild, exuberant forms made for a welcome change from the cerebral, cool and austere orthodox narrative of modern art history.