No one cares about the majestically mapped out beautiful backdrop of snowy, icy Lake Michigan. No one cares about parking downtown, what’s for lunch or catching a train back to wherever. All anyone at The MCA is concerned about right now is the re-arrival of original Hairy Who member and remarkable marksman of his craft, Jim Nutt.

Jim Nutt’s Coming Into Character finds itself in a particularly perfect predicament: old meeting new, contemporaries clashing with veterans, fans and followers feeling the flow of a favorite. Some have used words like grotesque or gruesome to describe the work of Jim Nutt and The Hairy Who, but those types of words are used by folks who don’t quite grasp the concepts proposed. Curator Lynne Warren summed it up best: “Jim Nutt stretches the boundaries of distortion without causing concern.”

I started my trip to the MCA for Jim Nutt’s opening reception the same way I start all my trips to the MCA: sketchbook in hand, pen and pad ready to capture words and visuals aplenty. The MCA is like an old friend you haven’t seen in awhile but with whom you always remain on good terms. We both make new friends on the side, we form other relationships, but when we meet back up (in this case through a mutual friend, Jim Nutt) we don’t skip a beat. We fall right back into a natural rhythm. MCA curator, contemporary art expert and longtime Jim Nutt enthusiast Lynne Warren aided in this rhythmic reunion with the exhibition she put together. The Jim Nutt Companion, Seeing Is A Kind of Thinking is also quite impressive, featuring an original Hairy Who poster from their 1966 show at the Hyde Park Art Center, Chuck Close’s Cindy from 1988, Art Green’s Rigorous Timidity from 1970 and James Falconer’s Worry from 1966 which after talking with Jim Nutt himself remarked, “I haven’t seen this painting in so long. It was at the original Hairy Who show.” I got the feeling as we walked through the gallery together that even though his work is hanging in dramatic fashion throughout the MCA, Jim Nutt is still a fan and a lover of art at heart.

When we shook hands after my initial introduction, I told him that I was a big fan and I asked him if he was getting tired of hearing that phrase (“Big fan”). He, quite humorously, responded right away, “Well, it’s better than the opposite.” It’s that sharp tongue and quick wit that has made Jim Nutt as famed and beloved as he’s become over the years.

The titles of his earlier work included that wit and playful wordage and are on display in this exhibition showcasing many techniques including his early trademark hinterglasmalerei (behind glass painting): 1968’s I’m da Viscious Roomer and Cotton Mouth, 1969’s A He Haw and Don’t Touch Her (“knot again?!”), 1970’s Toot-Toot Woo-Woo, 1971’s Stepping (sic) Off The Room and 1986’s Wee Jim’s Black Eye (self-portrait). I asked him why the titles have been condensed to one syllable words nowadays: “Something a character in the piece is saying ends up in the title. It hasn’t always been consistent. Sometimes a word will come to me while working on a piece and it’ll stick.”

He is, as an artist (and maybe as a fan too), “Very much pleased with the way the exhibit turned out.” Judging by the reaction from my colleagues in attendance for the opening, MCA curators and staff, we are very much pleased with the career that led to such an amazing exhibit. Without your contribution to the art world, Jim Nutt, we’d look awfully silly asking, “Harry Who?” Now by speaking the words, “Hairy Who,” we are looked at as insiders on an outsiders topic of interest. And we take pride in that…

Jim Nutt’s Coming Into Character is on display at the MCA now through May 29, 2011.

MCA Chicago | 220 East Chicago Avenue Chicago | 312.280.2660

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