Toon Musings: The Chicago Imagists and “Low Art”


L’Art Populaire!

I am blessed to live in Chicagoland— that’s what we call it here— deep in Flyover Country. Because of its central location, it became prominent in many industries, and because it was an industrial hub, it grew to become a cultural hub as well. Besides meatpacking, Chicago was a center of publishing and consequently, advertising, which meant art jobs. I got a break in the 90s doing art for a number of animation firms that contracted out to ad agencies to make commercials. A fellow of my acquaintance, a teacher of mine and an underground cartoonist of some renown died recently; he made his career creating Wacky Packs bubblegum novelties, which I collected as a kid. And a company called Advertising Posters was under contract to create the often lurid art for the pinball machines made by Gottlieb, Williams, and Bally, the Big Three pinball manufacturers, all based right here in Chicagoland.

This meeting of the industrial, the commercial, and the artistic is celebrated in an exhibit at the Elmhurst Art Museum entitled “Kings and Queens: Pinball, Imagists and Chicago”, running until May 7th. It explores the connection between the crass and vulgar art of pinball machines and the art movement that arose in Chicago in the 60s and 70s.

The Chicago Imagists were a group of artists, students of the Art Institute of Chicago,  who shared aesthetic interests and exhibited their work in shows at the Hyde Park Art Center in the south side of the city. They had no manifesto to speak of, but their works tended to be representational, often of the human figure, garishly colorful, and surrealistic. They celebrated grotesquerie, sometimes scatological, often sexual, frequently humorous, and generally outrageous. The Imagists took their inspiration from the Surrealists, Art Brut (raw, or outsider art), native art from the Pacific Northwest, Central America and Oceana, comics, and yes, pinball machines. The fashion in art on the coasts at the time favored Abstract Expressionism, and New York Pop Art, which referenced commercial advertising illustration; but the Imagists’ work was not a reaction to this, no way, nope, uh-uh, definitely not, so quit bringing it up.

It gave a peculiar feeling to see these schlocky, garishly primary-colored pinball machines of my youth displayed next to artworks from artists I recognized from hoity-toity museums: artists like Jim Nutt, Ed Paschke, and Roger Brown. I never played much pinball, and never really appreciated the art before, though one fish that graced the Atlantis game reminded me of a fish from the bathroom wallpaper of my childhood home. I even got to play some pinball— this is an interactive exhibit, don’tcha know— because the Sheriff machine was giving free balls for some reason. I epically suck at pinball; always have, probably always will.

The Imagists were inspired by pinball art, probably because it was racy and lurid, and the machines were generally found in bowling alleys, carnivals, pool halls and other low dives with continuous entertainment where could be found the tawdry underbelly of society. As they took from pinball, so also they gave to it; Constantino Mitchell, a student of prominent Imagist Ray Yoshida, was introduced to Ed Paschke, another prominent Imagist. They frequented bars and nightclubs together, and when a career opportunity with Williams Amusements presented itself, Paschke encouraged Mitchell to apply. Thus began a decades-long career in pinball art, punctuated by a couple of collaborative efforts by Mitchell and Paschke to adorn pinball machines. Art to the Masses!

As a relatively crass and unschooled practitioner of the “popular arts”, I tend to prefer my art to be more grounded in empirically expressed objective reality; that is, I like my pitchers to, y’know, look like stuff. I’ve never been a fan of abstract expressionism, where the art represents some subjective emotional state the artist may be experiencing, or somesuch. A little too airy-fairy and subjective for my vulgar tastes.  Fortunately Chicagoland, with it’s close association with both the industrial and the aesthetic, provides a venue where the two overlap. Vive l’Art Populaire!

Exhibit home

Exhibit catalog 

Phil Maish is a freelance cartoonist of no repute. His modest efforts may be viewed at myth-fits.com. He has worked for the Government, the Press, the Opera, and a Soulless Corporation. Self-taught and beholden only to his formidable wife and amazing son, he spends his free time gadding about in his vintage autogyro and, with his faithful manservant Nicopol, exploring forgotten ruins, discovering hitherto unknown animal species, smashing spy rings, and regaling fellow members of the League of Intrepid Adventurers with tales of his intrepid adventures.