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Thomas Chimes: Adventures in 'Pataphysics

February 27 - May 6, 2007


Despite his early success in New York, Chimes chose to heed the advice of Marcel Duchamp, who predicted that the "great artist of tomorrow" would need to go "underground" to avoid the insidious influence of the commercial art world. Inspired by Duchamp's famous statement, Chimes has continued to live and work in Philadelphia, always in search of his next big idea rather than commercial success. (left: Thomas Chimes (American, born 1921), Mural, 1963-1965. Oil on wood panel, 83 inches x 213 1/4 inches. John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida.)

In the mid-1960s he began making austere, finely crafted metal box constructions that often incorporate small symbolic drawings, paintings, or even hidden messages. Chimes's metal boxes from the 1960s and early 1970s reflect a strong affinity with the wit and eroticism of Duchamp's Large Glass, as well as Joseph Cornell's poetic box constructions. The often humorous and erotic aspects of Chimes's works also offer a commentary on the formal austerity of Minimalism, which had begun to dominate the artistic climate of the mid-to-late 1960s.

At the heart of the exhibition will be the haunting series of 48 panel portraits, painted between 1973 and 1978, of French Symbolist poets, philosophers, and other nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literary and art historical figures including Alfred Jarry, Antonin Artaud, James Joyce, Edgar Allan Poe, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Marcel Duchamp. These intimate, sepia toned portraits reveal Chimes's strong feelings of affinity and continuity with these avant-garde forerunners, all of whom he regards as "possessed" characters. Each iconic portrait, reminiscent of 19th-century daguerreotypes, is contained within an oversized wooden frame of the type constructed for some of the paintings of fellow Philadelphian Thomas Eakins. (right: Thomas Chimes (American, born 1921), Master and Own, 1966. Mixed media metal box, 64 x 48 inches. Private collection, Courtesy of Locks Gallery, Philadelphia.)

These panel paintings were directly inspired by the artist's profound interest in the writings of Alfred Jarry (1873-1907), the iconoclastic French author of the notorious play Ubu Roi (1896) and one of the most revered figures in Chimes's pantheon. Chimes was most interested in Jarry's invention of the concept of 'Pataphysics, "the science of imaginary solutions," which posits a highly imaginative alternate universe made up entirely of exceptions, in which the traditional laws of the universe are upended.

The concluding section of the exhibition will feature the luminous white paintings that Chimes has been producing since the early 1980s. These ethereal paintings are created through the application of layers of colored glaze worked into a white ground, which is then wiped away to leave only a glowing suggestion of the figures and faces of Chimes's subjects. The submerged visage of Jarry, James Joyce, or Erik Satie slowly emerges from underneath the flurry of white brushstrokes that covers these paintings like a blanket of snow. In 1999, he began his latest series of paintings, which measure just 3 x 3 inches, and extend the artist's interest in Jarry and diminutive portraiture. These works often take the form of medallions in which the French author is barely recognizable beneath the layers of white paint that partially obscure his features.

Through decades of reinvention and transformation, Chimes has maintained a resolute commitment to his craft, and an ability to engage in new and exciting ways with the provocative ideas of Jarry and his followers. The artist's imaginative synthesis of philosophy, art, and literature in his highly original and idiosyncratic work has made Chimes an influential figure to generations of young artists in Philadelphia, a thriving center for the avant-garde in all the arts.

This exhibition was made possible by the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, a program of the Philadelphia Center for Arts and Heritage, funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, and administered by The University of the Arts. Additional support was provided by The Locks Foundation, the J. F. Costopoulos Foundation, The Robert Montgomery Scott Fund for Exhibitions, Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz and The Robert H. and Janet S. Fleisher Foundation, the Areté Foundation/Betsy and Ed Cohen, Susan and Washburn S. Oberwager, Linda and Paul Richardson, and other members of The 'Pataphysical Society, a group of generous donors.


(above: Thomas Chimes (American, born 1921), Set (The Descent), 1972. Mixed media metal box, 17 1/16 x 13 1/18 inches. Private Collection, Courtesy of Locks Gallery, Philadelphia.)



A fully illustrated, 272-page catalogue, published by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, will accompany the exhibition. This book will include an extended essay by Michael Taylor, along with important biographical and archival material, as well as a comprehensive bibliography and full chronology of the artist's life and work, partially based on Taylor's numerous interviews with Chimes over the past seven years.


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