Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Review: Thomas Chimes' eclectic art intrigues at Ringling


Thomas Chimes could have been part of the fraternity known as the abstract expressionists with distinguished members such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Barnett Newman. But he was only in his early 30s in the 1950s when that New York art movement was in full flower and probably felt he had nothing new to add to it.

So he formed a society of one and created art that interested him. If the works on view at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art are representative of his career, he's impossible to categorize. A vibrantly colored, enigmatic mural, Dada-esque metal sculptures and Old-Master influenced panel portraits of famous people he admired all come from the same hand.

Chimes (1921-2009) grew up in Philadelphia, the child of Greek immigrants. He studied at the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts until he joined the Air Force during World War II, then moved to New York where he attended Columbia University and the Arts Students League. He seemed to feel lost in New York and not interested in its contemporary art scene. After a trip to Europe, where he found validation in earlier artists such as Henri Matisse and Vincent van Gogh, he moved back to Philadelphia in 1953, out of the epicenter of the art world but into a world of his own making.

The variety in this show embodies that world. The star is the mural, which stretches 17 feet in length and is 7 feet high. He painted it between 1963 and 1965; it was purchased by the Friends of the Ringling support group in 1968 and has since been called the Ringling Mural.

My first impression of it was as an investigation of form and color. The letter X is a recurring symbol that probably has religious meaning since other references to his Greek Orthodoxy are also present, including a crucifixion. The X is also a symbol of change or transformation dating from medieval times, so it's painted on heraldic-looking banners. We see explosions of floral imagery, too, with the suggestion of Matisse, and the only remnants of the representational landscape element he originally planned for the painting. We see it in the small studies he made in advance, hills, lake and sky as background for the collage of imagery he was working out in the foreground. In the mural, the hills become a green rectangle on the right and the lake a blue one on the left with a squiggle of yellow, perhaps for the sun. Studies are such an addition to finished works, showing us how an artist works through and evolves ideas. This exhibition is graced with several.

The metal wall sculptures, called boxes, were also made in the 1960s. One resembles a walkie-talkie, referencing his admiration of Marshall McLuhan, a philosopher who wrote about communication theory. Combined with its high-tech details are the sinuous curves of throwback art deco design.

Another homage is a 1979 pastel drawing of Alfred Jarry, a late 19th century writer who invented pataphysics, an absurdist philosophy he defined as "the science of imaginary solutions." In the drawing, Jarry rides his customary bicycle on a Paris street, except that the wheels are missing and the axles resemble oars. That and the title, Faustroll on Wheels, are also a homage to one of Jarry's novels, Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician, a work that prefigured the surrealist movement. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the work of surrealist painter René Magritte comes to mind in the drawing.)

I don't understand most of Chimes' art with its obscure references, so I can't provide good answers for why I like a lot of it. I just do.

This is a small show with fewer than 20 works, which, except for the mural and some of its studies, were gifts from Chimes' former wife, Dawn. But it's rounded out by two more small summer shows.

"The Bikeriders" is a selection of photographs by Danny Lyon (1942-) from a large portfolio of the same name that was published in book form in 1968. From 1963 to 1967, Lyon immersed himself in the outlaw motorcycle culture in the Midwest. We get to know people on a scary fringe from the nonthreatening distance of a black and white gelatin silver print: Crazy Charlie, Cockroach (posing with his wife and baby) and haunted-looking Cal. Lyon went on to became famous for such immersions into the counterculture and was one of the first proponents of the subjective journalism that arose in the 1960s.

Also on view is "Bandits, Beauties and Beggars: The Etchings of Salvator Rosa." It's anchored by a landscape, the genre for which the Italian baroque artist (1615-73) is famous, and which was part of John Ringling's bequest. It's a moody work, the style Rosa preferred to the classical, idealized versions favored at the time, and he became a source of inspiration to later Romantic artists. It's surrounded by 62 etchings he made to reach broader audiences. They are portraits of anonymous people — the beggars, beauties and bandits of the title plus lots of soldiers — in poses and combinations that suggest intriguing stories.

Contact Lennie Bennett at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.

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