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Thomas Chimes: Adventures in 'Pataphysics

February 27 - May 6, 2007


Selected wall texts for the exhibition


This retrospective exhibition celebrates the life and work of Thomas Chimes, one of the most inventive artists to have emerged on the Philadelphia art scene in the past fifty years. Born to Greek immigrant parents in Philadelphia in 1921, Chimes briefly studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1939, before the outbreak of World War II curtailed his education. He completed his studies at the Art Students League in New York between 1946 and 1948, following his service in the United States Army Air Forces. Despite early success in New York, Chimes chose to heed the advice of the French-born artist Marcel Duchamp, who predicted that "The great artist of tomorrow will go underground" to avoid the insidious influence of the commercial art world. Inspired by Duchamp's famous statement, Chimes moved from New York to Philadelphia, where he has lived and worked since 1953.
Over the next five decades, Chimes would develop a rich personal iconography that is the result of an imaginative synthesis of philosophy, art, and literature. The diverse body of work that the artist has produced since the late 1950s-which includes early crucifixion paintings, metal boxes, a celebrated series of panel portraits, and the more recent, ethereal white paintings-reveals his remarkable ability to periodically reinvent himself, and underscores the conceptual nature of his artistic practice. Over time, Chimes has found inspiration for his evocative imagery in the writings of Alfred Jarry, Antonin Artaud, James Joyce, and other literary heroes, as well as in the art of Henri Matisse, Vincent van Gogh, Thomas Eakins, and Duchamp. The works of these artists are well represented in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which Chimes first visited in 1931 and today considers his second home.
Throughout a career that has been marked by constant transformation, Chimes has maintained a resolute commitment to his craft, as he continues to engage, in new and inventive ways, with the provocative ideas of Jarry and his followers. Tracing the stylistic evolution of Chimes's highly original and idiosyncratic art, this exhibition provides a comprehensive-and long overdue-exploration of the artist's remarkable career.
Crucifixion Paintings
In the late 1950s, Thomas Chimes began work on a series of boldly painted, semiabstract landscapes, which were inspired by Vincent van Gogh's anguished subject matter and use of vivid yellow hues, as well as by the thickly impastoed surfaces of the Russian-born French painter Nicolas de Staël. Given his own susceptibility to bouts of depression, Chimes may have been drawn to the tragic nature of the work of van Gogh and de Staël, both of whom battled with mental illness and eventually committed suicide. These painters also confirmed Chimes's belief in the role of the artist as a clairvoyant prophet or visionary whose work provides unique insights into the human condition. Like many artists of his generation, Chimes regarded van Gogh's ability to convey emotion through expressive color and agitated brushwork as an important precursor to the art of his own time.
By the early 1960s, Chimes had moved on to larger canvases that combined landscape references with symbols such as stars, ladders, dice, and crucifixes. The crucifixion motif relates directly to the artist's upbringing in the Greek Orthodox Church, as well as to his fascination with Henri Matisse's Chapel of the Rosary of the Dominican Nuns at Vence, near Nice in southern France, which Chimes visited in 1952. He transformed his borrowings from the French artist's vocabulary of schematized animal, fish, and vegetal motifs to create his own dynamic canvases, deploying rows of X-shaped forms on fields of bold, flat color that unfurl over the compositions like flags or banners. In the mid-1960s, Chimes began a new series of paintings featuring highly abstracted symbols mixed with recognizable imagery, such as letters, mathematical equations, and X-rays. In these Surrealist-inspired paintings, the artist delved into his unconscious, preferring the symbols he found there to remain mysterious, even to himself.
Metal Boxes
In the mid-1960s, Thomas Chimes began making austere, finely crafted metal box constructions that often incorporated small symbolic drawings, paintings, or even hidden messages. He had become fascinated with the work of the tormented French poet, author, and actor Antonin Artaud, whose writings inspired Chimes to incorporate the image of Artaud's tragicomic, birdlike alter ego "le Mômo" into his boxes. This emblem was often placed within stark assemblages of aluminum panels accented with electrical switches, radio antennae, and intercom speakers. His use of the latest technological devices was directly informed by the then controversial ideas of the Canadian cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan, who called for artists to interpret modern technology (doomed to increasingly rapid obsolescence) as the art forms of tomorrow.
The hard-edged, pristine surfaces of Chimes's metal boxes contrast sharply with the Renaissance and Art Nouveau­inspired drawings he included within them, calling attention to McLuhan's accelerating timeline and the increasingly blurred distinction between functional and aesthetic objects. These boxes have an affinity with the wit and eroticism of Marcel Duchamp's The Large Glass (on view in gallery 182), as well as Joseph Cornell's poetic box constructions (such as Homage to Juan Gris, in gallery 174). Chimes's often humorous and erotic compositions were also a criticism of the formal austerity of Minimalism, which had begun to dominate the artistic climate of the mid-to-late 1960s. In contrast with Minimalism's cool, industrial surfaces, the heated eroticism of Chimes's works reflects the prevailing atmosphere of sexual freedom and experimentation. The artist's imagery of male and female genitalia, open mouths, and sexual arousal through electronic stimulation transcend its origins in Surrealism and Pop Art to produce a startling iconography of sadomasochistic pleasure and pain in the age of McLuhan.
Panel Portraits
Between 1973 and 1978, Thomas Chimes created a haunting series of forty-eight portraits of French Symbolist poets, philosophers, and other nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literary and art historical figures, all of which relate somehow to his beloved hero, the French writer Alfred Jarry (1873­1907). Chimes wanted to continue Marcel Duchamp's legacy of putting painting "once again at the service of the mind" in the panel portraits-which required extensive preparatory research into the lives of the subjects, their writings, and their influence. The subject of each portrait is connected either directly or obliquely to Jarry, author of the shocking play Ubu Roi (King Ubu), which shocked Paris audiences in 1896. Jarry's unconventional life and radical nonconformism had interested Chimes to the point of obsession since the early 1960s. Chimes was especially intrigued by the writer's invention of 'Pataphysics, which Jarry defined as "the science of imaginary solutions" and which he used to create an alternative universe. The portraits reveal the artist's strong sense of affinity and continuity with his iconoclastic avant-garde forebears, all of whom he regards as possessed characters whose work remains as relevant today as when it was first created. "To get to the future you go to the past. To get to the past you go to the future," he explained in 1975, revealing his interest in a 'Pataphysical fluidity of time.
Chimes painted these portraits from carefully chosen photographs of his heroes, seizing upon the photographic medium's unique ability to capture a fleeting moment in the past. Each image, reminiscent of a sepia-toned nineteenth-century photograph, is enshrined within an oversized wooden frame resembling those often found on the paintings of Chimes's Philadelphia predecessor and hero Thomas Eakins, which situates the work somewhere between a family snapshot and a devotional icon.
White Paintings
Thomas Chimes's celebrated series of panel portraits gave way to a series of luminous white paintings that he began in the early 1980s. These hermetic works, whose meaning is often willfully obscured, were created through the application of glaze upon glaze of pigments worked into a white ground and then wiped away to leave only a glowing suggestion of figures and faces, which often float in a circle of pale light. The effect is that of a distant memory breaking through the fog of the unconscious. The apparent emptiness of the works from this period echoes Chimes's feelings of emotional barrenness following his separation from his wife in 1979. His interest in Alfred Jarry and portraiture continues in these white paintings, which often depict the painter's artistic heroes, such as James Joyce and Erik Satie, whose visages slowly emerge from the flurries of white brushstrokes that cover them like a blanket of snow. In several works based on a photograph of the French writer riding his bicycle, Jarry reappears as his own fictional character Doctor Faustroll, endlessly traversing the unknown landscape of the imagination.
In the late 1980s the series took a different turn when Chimes began to enliven the surface of his white paintings with quotations in India ink from Jarry and other writers, such as Homer and James Joyce. A trip to Greece in the early 1990s renewed the artist's interest in Greek mythology and led to a new group of diminutive paintings incorporating maps, constellations, and geometric forms. Chimes continues to work in this mode, creating ethereal white paintings with raised lettering on carefully prepared wooden panels measuring just three by three inches. These new works take the form of medallions and often verge on caricature as Chimes continues to mine the deeply provocative ideas of Jarry and his followers.
Painting and 'Pataphysics
In 1964, Thomas Chimes received from his brother-in-law the May-June 1960 issue of the Evergreen Review, devoted to the French Symbolist writer Alfred Jarry and entitled "What is 'Pataphysics?" It was through this publication that Chimes became interested in Jarry's invented science of 'Pataphysics, which Jarry described in the following terms: "'Pataphysics will examine the laws governing exceptions, and will explain the universe supplementary to this one; or, less ambitiously, will describe a universe which can be-and perhaps should be-envisioned in the place of the traditional one." Jarry expounded upon his notion of 'Pataphysics in his dauntingly dense masterpiece Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, 'Pataphysician, in which even the most absurd and contradictory propositions make sense. Jarry's idea of extending frontiers clearly appealed to Chimes, who was fascinated by the French author's search for a new reality through humor and a heightened vision informed by science, poetry, classical learning, religion, and, above all, an unfettered imagination.
This room contains works that reflect the longevity of Chimes's interest in Jarry and his characters, from the bloated, monstrous figure of King Ubu to Doctor Faustroll and the skiff in which Faustroll undertook his hallucinatory voyage "from Paris to Paris by sea." Also on display is a selection of rare books by Jarry from Chimes's library, which provided the impetus for the artist's extraordinary series of panel paintings of the 1970s. The panel portraits, as well as the more recent white paintings, are all informed by Jarry's invented philosophy of 'Pataphysics, which opened up for Chimes a new and exciting vocabulary of esoteric, quasi-scientific imagery, along with a pantheon of like-minded "father figures," whose contributions to the world of ideas he continually pays homage.

What is "'Pataphysics"?


'Pataphysics may be defined as an artistic challenge to the concept of rationality and reason, and the notion that any set of universal laws could explain the world in which we live.
In 1964, Thomas Chimes received from his brother-in-law the May-June 1960 issue of the Evergreen Review, devoted to Alfred Jarry (1873-1907), and entitled "What is 'Pataphysics?" It was through this publication that Chimes became interested in the French writer's invented science of 'Pataphysics, which Jarry defined as "the science of imaginary solutions," and the journal has remained the artist's "bible" ever since.
Perhaps best known as the author of the play Ubu Roi (King Ubu), Jarry's influence on 20th century literary figures, particularly dramatists in the 'absurdist' school such as Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett, has been well noted. As an early advocate of a subjectivist and expressionist approach to art, Jarry, as the critic Martin Esslin points out, "must be considered one of the originators of the concepts on which a good deal of contemporary [visual] art is based."
Jarry first advanced his philosophy of 'Pataphysics in Gestes et opinions du Docteur Faustroll, pataphysician (Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician), which was published in 1911, four years after the author's death. In this "neo-scientific" novel, Jarry argued that 'Pataphysics makes no claim to universal or absolute laws, but rather presents itself as "the science of the particular," and "the laws which govern exceptions." 'Pataphysics proposes a universe "supplementary" to our own, one in which all things are considered exceptional.
Chimes' extensive series of panel portraits, as well as the more recent white paintings, are all informed by Jarry's farcical, tongue-in-cheek philosophy of 'Pataphysics, which defies rational explanation. 'Pataphysics opened up for the artist a new and exciting vocabulary of esoteric, quasi-scientific imagery, along with a pantheon of like-minded "father figures" to whose contributions to the world of ideas he continually pays homage.
"Absurd is that which is devoid of purpose cut off from his religious, metaphysical, and transcendental roots, man is lost; his actions become senseless, absurd, useless."
- Eugene Ionesco
"For Pataphysics, all things are equal. The 'scientific' and the 'nonsensical' weigh alike in the scale of eternity, since both are arbitrary, both are absurd."
- Richard Coe
"Relating comprehensible things only serves to deaden the spirit and falsify the memory, whereas the absurd exercises the spirit and makes the memory work."
- Alfred Jarry

(above: Thomas Chimes (American, born 1921), Rachilde, 1986, Oil on canvas, 20 ? x 22 ? inches, Private Collection, Courtesy of Locks Gallery.)


(above: Thomas Chimes (American, born 1921), Faustroll (L'infini), 1988. Oil on linen, 48 x 68 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with the Julius Bloch Memorial Fund created by Benjamin D. Bernstein, 1988.)


(above: Thomas Chimes (American, born 1921), Faustroll Helmet, 1984. Oil on canvas, 18 ? x 22 ? inches. Private Collection, Courtesy of Locks Gallery, Philadelphia.)


(above: Thomas Chimes (American, born 1921), James Joyce, 1986. Oil on linen, 50 x 62 inches. Private Collection, Courtesy of Locks Gallery, Philadelphia.)

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