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'Hairy Who & The Chicago Imagists' get their due in new doc

Artists of the Hairy Who, Chicago Imagists have a champion in new documentary

Christopher Borrelli

7:00 PM CDT, May 19, 2014

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Leslie Buchbinder comes from money. She knows influence. Her family made its reputation in the refrigeration business, and one of the ways her father invested was by collecting art. They are well-connected in the Chicago art world. In particular, the Buchbinders, who became friends with artists, curators and museum administrators, enthusiastically collected the colorful surrealism of the Hairy Who and of the Chicago Imagists, two loose, playful cadres of Chicago painters that sprang up in the 1960s and whose sweaty, grotesque caricatures of bodies and bodily fluids remain a bedrock influence on contemporary artists and cartoonists.

Understandably then, when Buchbinder was 13, she balked at being painted by Ed Paschke.

Paschke, arguably the most celebrated of both groups, who made his name on sometimes lurid portraits full of acidic neon color and a seedy lushness, became a family friend. In the early 1970s, Leslie and her parents went to Paschke's home in Chicago, where she overheard discussion of a possible family portrait of the Buchbinders by Paschke. She was mortified at the idea, and knew her parents wouldn't be frightened off — the walls of the Buchbinder home in Olympia Fields were studded with Hairy Who images of genitalia. As a teenager growing up in the suburbs, she predictably felt she didn't fit in: "After my parents started collecting, I really didn't. Funny thing is, eventually, Hairy Who, Imagists — they informed my life."

And so, since 2008, bit by bit, interview by interview, Buchbinder has been constructing a thank-you:

"Hairy Who & the Chicago Imagists," Buchbinder's sprawling documentary about Chicago artists who found a common language at an uncommon time, premieres Tuesday night at the Museum of Contemporary Art. It spotlights interviews with members of the Hairy Who and the Imagists (including Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Karl Wirsum, Art Green and Suellen Rocca), many of whom still live in the Chicago area; it features admirers ranging from Jeff Koons to Chris Ware; it showcases oodles of evocative, little-seen footage of Chicago in the '60s and '70s.

But most interestingly, it's also remarkably ambitious for a directorial debut: Buchbinder, who spent much of her career in arts-based public relations, never showed an inkling of being a filmmaker until six years ago, at 50, when she decided to try. Her first pragmatic step: surrounding herself with an acclaimed team of local collaborators. Curator John Corbett wrote the script; jazz musician and composer Tomeka Reid wrote the score; Chicago theater staples Mike Nussbaum and Cheryl Lynn Bruce provide voice-over narration; and comics artist Lilli Carre, playing off the cartoonish Hairy Who aesthetic, made several animated segments.

The result, far from a dry litany of talking heads, or vanity project, is a love letter, if not quite a hagiography.

A way of owning her past, Buchbinder explained.

In 1972 Paschke made a deal with the 13-year-old Buchbinder: "He said he would make four panels, one for each family member, but my parents would have to agree to put my panel in the closet, in perpetuity. He saw each of us as a season. My mother (in hot pants) and brother (shirtless, wearing riding boots) were summer and fall — and in very Oedipal positions, I think! My father (in biker leather) was winter. And I was spring. He endowed me with the breasts I now have but didn't in ninth grade. He put four-leaf clovers on my shoes.

"So, no, it never went into the closet. I was too touched."

Today, all four portraits hang in her Lake Shore Drive home, looking very "American Hustle" meets "Boogie Nights." She said: "I think part of growing up, and this set of artists helped teach me this, is about allowing yourself to look into realms that are profoundly out of your comfort zone — I am hard to talk off a ledge now."

Asked to explain, she said:

"I was a nude model for art classes. I acted a bit. I sang. I became a professional dancer with several different companies (including with Concert Dance Inc. at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts). I started way too late in life (early 20s) but instantly got into companies, so I kept going until the inevitable dancer injuries. Eventually I went into arts PR and had kids — and oh, but before all that, long time ago, I was a magician's assistant in Los Angeles! Or I think he was a magician! One night, a friend of mine from the Francis W. Parker School (where Buchbinder attended high school) came into the Magic Castle, the place where I was working. She was working for Francis Ford Coppola, and, no joke, she came up to me afterward and said, 'Leslie, what happened to you?' And I said, 'Jill, please don't tell anyone!'

"But, see, the reason I was doing so many random things was I believe you take every job. The Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists, a lot of these artists had so many different experiences in their lives, and they were so willing to go out on a limb with their work. Gladys told me she grew up in a family where her parents were factory workers and just getting through a day was an accomplishment, so she would paint the everyday, the quotidian. But she would do it her way, employing whatever resources she had at her fingertips, to celebrate making your way through life."

As a filmmaker, as fundamentally an assembler of ideas and various artists working toward a common story, Buchbinder might have found her calling. Nilsson, who lives in Wilmette with husband Jim Nutt, said she was impressed with Buchbinder: "The Hairy Who were six people at the beginning, and the Chicago Imagists were a separate group with similarities, and so we all got lumped together. At the same time, each of us were individuals, in our own studios doing work by ourselves. Leslie took on an enormous task trying to make sense of that all, to make people privy to a scene that was as viable as any scene but not as recognized. So I was impressed how professional, smooth and lively the result turned out."

The film — which cost about $500,000 and was made with a combination of personal funds, private investors and arts grants (the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts put up about $100,000, Buchbinder said) — is playing a number of festivals this summer, from Ontario to Texas to the San Francisco DocFest; the next Chicago screening is June 6 at the Block Museum of Art on Northwestern University's Evanston campus. It was first shown to many of its subjects last November at a private screening at the Siskel Film Center.

Response from the assembled Who and Imagists was generally — surprise.

Rocca: "I was shocked someone could maintain an audience for 100 minutes and the subject was art."

Wirsum: "The mission is clearly to spotlight us again, but it does get at how we, and the work we did, was never exactly favored. To be frank, (the film) took so long to get made, I assumed it would never happen."

Indeed, when Buchbinder started six years ago, her first call was to MCA curator Lynne Warren: "Leslie didn't really know what she was doing, and understandably. She didn't have much of a focus." Initially Buchbinder had an even more ambitious plan, Corbett recalled, one that dived into the international art market. Part of his job "became showing her how this had to be scaled back to make a watchable film." For shape, structure, accessibility (and professional cinematography), Buchbinder also turned to Chicago filmmakers Brian Ashby and Ben Kolak. Part of their job, which led to the film's most compelling images, involved two years of scrounging for archival footage, "literally digging in closets and attics," Ashby said.

That footage — courtesy of sources as disparate as French television, the Smithsonian, Chicago Film Archives and local artists' home movies — is fresh and telling, from an everyday sidewalk blues jam on Maxwell Street to black-and-white images of an unrecognizably noirish Chicago to the silliness of opening-night parties for Hairy Who exhibitions at the Hyde Park Art Center, the group's unofficial launching pad.

There's also, of course, a lot of art in the film, works that, as Buchbinder points out, "feel very right now, very 2014." As provocative as some of the work still looks, even more evident is how reminiscent it feels of contemporary illustration, outsider art — not only the edgier Adult Swim animation on Cartoon Network but the more fluid, fanciful daydreams on the animated series "Adventure Time." Carre, whose own work has been shown at the MCA, said "so many comic artists tend to cite them as influences, and their own pieces look so much like a kind of (alternative) comic, there's probably a lot of cross-pollination going on for years."

That said, the still-relative obscurity of the Hairy Who and Chicago Imagists probably means whatever influence the groups had on culture, "many of the artists who are drawing from them probably don't know they're doing it," Warren said. "The Hairy Who, they're just in the air. Nobody mentions them to pad a resume."

That lack of recognition, both with the public and wider art world, is a theme in the film. Warren said the artists' group identity was always confusing outside (and inside) Chicago: "They were individuals but often misconstrued as having some collective art manifesto or political bond, and mostly, they were just friends." That, and a distinctive humility, comes across in the film. As Corbett said — and Wirsum agreed — "They would have been happy to see their work understood in a broad context but weren't going to climb on a soap box."

Buchbinder, who is still looking for theatrical distribution for the film, built something like a soap box. The film is not particularly critical, and, beyond the question of influence, the quality of the artwork itself is a nonissue. But then, Buchbinder — already at work on her next film (a documentary about artist H.C. Westermann) — isn't a critic.

"I wanted to know what the art meant to the artists. Did it mean anything?" she said. "It had a shiny, colorful surface but closer, it was disturbing, now and then. It felt like time to understand this group of artists I had spent my life around. I wanted to know why I have all these twitches! Kidding! Thank God for those twitches!"

"Hairy Who & The Chicago Imagists" screens Tuesday at a sold-out event at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave.; and June 6 at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, 40 Arts Circle Drive in Evanston, $6 at the museum box office.

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli