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'His Own Visual Vocabulary'

December 20, 2007 By:
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Earlier this year, I wrote a piece about Thomas Eakins -- the occasion was the appearance of a fine new biography by William S. McFeely -- and I described him as the greatest painter this city ever produced, as well as one of many artists that our fair metropolis also saw fit to abuse (in saying this, I was thinking as well of the great Jewish architect of the 20th century, Louis Kahn).

This time out, I'm going to consider another homegrown artist -- the equally and indisputably great Thomas Chimes -- who has hardly been abused by Philadelphia but who, despite a recent wonderful show at our Museum of Art, is not hardly well-known enough to his fellow citizens. Perhaps now that an exquisite volume tied to that exhibit is available, the unnecessary patch of anonymity that seems to cling to the artist will be dispelled once and for all.

The book, Thomas Chimes: Adventures in 'Pataphysics, is the work of Michael R. Taylor, the Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of Modern Art at the Philly museum, which has jointly published this volume along with Yale University Press, whose attention to detail is legendary. The work contains not only a generous sampling of Chimes' paintings -- in all the varied and startling forms they've taken over the last five decades -- but also a wonderful summary of just who and what has influenced this man throughout his creatively adventurous journey.

It seems of particular relevance that Taylor has written about Marcel Duchamp, Dada and Surrealism, as all three have had an effect upon Chimes. French culture, per se, whether literary or visual, can be seen cropping up in all of the phases of Chimes' career.

Taylor considers these influences and each of Chimes' phases, from the crucifixion paintings, which are really strange new forms of landscape art, where the critic finds traces of Van Gogh and Matisse and even good old Eakins; the metal box period, where Taylor identifies the influence of Antonin Artaud (who haunts all of Chimes' work), Jasper Jones, Duchamp, Man Ray and Aubrey Beardsley; then on to perhaps his best known works, the panel portraits of his artistic and literary heroes, such as Proust and Alfred Jarry (in fact, it was Jarry who devised 'Pataphysics -- "the science of imaginary solutions"); and ending with a discussion of the often breathtakingly beautiful "white paintings."

Taylor tells us that Chimes was born in Philadelphia in 1921, the eldest son of Greek immigrants, and grew up in West Philadelphia, where his father owned a restaurant. From an early age, Chimes showed a talent for art that was encouraged by relatives and teachers. He eventually won a prize at West Philadelphia High School and, though his father hoped he might pursue a career in the military, he enrolled instead at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in September 1939.

He studied there until Pearl Harbor and America's entry into World War II. He enrolled for training at the Palmetto School of Aeronautics in Columbia, S.C., where he received his license to become an aircraft mechanic. He eventually enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces, and served as a radio gunner on a B-17 aircraft, while never relinquishing his dream of becoming an artist.

In June 1945, he was demobilized, ran the family business for a time, tried to enroll again at PAFA but was told that there were no places, thanks to the G.I. Bill and the influx of students. So he went off to New York and enrolled at the Art Students League, where he studied alongside other future greats of the art world.

But, in 1953, he made a conscious decision, notes Taylor, to return to Philadelphia. "It was in Philadelphia that Chimes would find inspiration from many artists and writers whose names have become associated with the city, most notably Thomas Eakins and Edgar Allen Poe, and formulate his intensely personal and highly original iconography, which often draws upon childhood memories, dreams and associations." Philadelphia also freed him from New York and the dominant styles there, so he could "work in relative isolation and develop his own visual vocabulary."

Everything that Taylor says about Chimes is right on the money. But some of the best writing about the artist has been done by poet Stephen Berg, another Philadelphian and a friend of the painter, who wrote a series of 30 small prose meditations on Chimes' work back in the 1980s for a brochure that accompanied an exhibit at Moore College of Art.

Berg chose to discuss the artist's literary portraits and the white paintings primarily because "both are extensive explorations of areas of reality, consciousness, and the unconscious -- in unique and powerful ways each kind of painting resolves the struggle to comprehend man's relationship between his inner life and the everyday world. The way of the framed wooden portraits might be called personal; the way of the white canvases might be called essential (or a painting of essences). I want to find out why, when I look at the portraits and the white paintings, I feel these resolutions. I want to define them. For me, that is a successful aesthetic: feeling, somehow, that you are, at least momentarily, brought into contact with powers in yourself that can help you to become more whole."

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