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Wacky, ‘Other’ Art at the RISD Museum

'What Nerve!' brings together four movements or collectives of alternative American art after 1960

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in slightly off-kilter things and in what gets left out of history,” says Dan Nadel, 38, coeditor of the Comics Journal. “I’m always immediately suspicious of canon-making.”

Now, Nadel himself is playing canon-maker, as the curator behind “What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present.” Opening September 19 at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, the show features the wacky, often comic-book-esque work of four art movements or collectives: the Bay Area “Funk” artists, the Hairy Who from Chicago, Destroy All Monsters of Ann Arbor, and Forcefield from Providence.

“This exhibition proposes an alternate history of figurative painting, sculpture, and vernacular image-making from 1960 to the present that has been largely overlooked and undervalued,” Nadel writes in the accompanying catalogue, published by D.A.P.

Robert Arneson, Typewriter, 1965. ©ROBERT ARNESON/UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, BERKELEY ART MUSEUM AND PACIFIC FILM ARCHIVE, GIFT OF THE ARTIST

Robert Arneson, Typewriter, 1965.

©ROBERT ARNESON/UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, BERKELEY ART MUSEUM AND PACIFIC FILM ARCHIVE, GIFT OF THE ARTIST

One characteristic shared by the multifarious artworks in “What Nerve!” is an offbeat sense of humor. Consider, for example, Joan Brown’s creepy Fur Rat sculpture (1962), in which the artist covered a wooden armature with a mangy-looking raccoon pelt. Or Art Green’s Advanced Dichotomy (1968), a posterlike painting of a shiny blue cannon aimed at an ice cream cone. There’s also Gladys Nilsson’s Mt. Vonder Voman During Turetrush (1967), a watercolor on handmade paper depicting, says Nadel, “an enormous, superheroic woman gently presiding over the doings of a gaggle of other creatures.”

Many of the pieces haven’t been shown together since they were originally exhibited, including the epic series of acrylic paintings “The Near Extinction and Salvation of the American Buffalo” (1981) by Gary Panter, the always-busy graphic novelist, painter, set designer, and musician.

As Nadel points out, “There’s never before been a show that tracks multiple generations of artists working in this other vein of American figuration.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 29 under the title “Collective Imagination.”

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