Chicago novelist Nelson Algren described his hometown as a city “that was to forge, out of steel and blood-red neon, its own peculiar wilderness.” He was talking about a mercantile city, an ecosystem of trainyards and jails and bars, but he was also gesturing to a density that felt untamed, in which anything could happen. Tony Fitzpatrick, another Chicagoan, literalizes the idea of urban wildness in “Jesus of Western Avenue,” an exhibition at the Cleve Carney Museum of Art, just outside the city. Comprising nearly one hundred multimedia collages and etchings (plus a quilt), the show has the vigor of a career retrospective, albeit one permeated by nostalgia and ironic sentimentality. Like Algren, whose work he has illustrated, Fitzpatrick is both a mythologizer and a booster of Chicago. His show is equal parts paean and eulogy. The metropolis that Fitzpatrick enshrines here doesn’t exist anymore and perhaps never did, except in the romantic imaginations of born locals.
Fitzpatrick is a self-taught artist who grew up in a large Irish Catholic family. His résumé includes stints as a tattooist, bartender, and boxer, and he still moonlights as an actor. The exhibition’s name derives from the street where Fitzpatrick’s studio is located, near Humboldt Park. From the earliest work on view (a 1994 etching) through the most recent mixed-media collages (the bulk of the show), Fitzpatrick has mined the same visual vocabulary drawn from comic books, holy cards, tattoo art, vintage matchbooks, and midcentury ads. He can also sometimes resemble a distant heir to the Chicago Imagists, whose exuberance and sardonic humor he shares. A published poet, Fitzpatrick occasionally garnishes his work with snippets of portentous verse: “On Western Avenue, / the bird of last things / awaits the final night / of lillies grown in / a bloody red garden,” reads a stanza from Holy Ghost of Western Avenue #2 (2020).
In these and most other recent works, matchbook covers advertising defunct Chicago businesses do double duty as a border and a visual chorus. Humboldt Park Winter Juncos (I, Apostle of This Radiant Place, Cast My Bread on Your Water), from 2021, features a stamp-size ad for the Edgewater Beach Hotel, a luxury playland on the shores of Lake Michigan that was demolished in 1971. The ghosts in Fitzpatrick’s work are architectural and cultural.
Perhaps to offset this spectral quality, Fitzpatrick also populates his pictures with vibrant portraits of creatures whose regal scale dwarfs the surrounding mélange. While many of the works—roughly the first half of the show—were produced in the past two years, and some, such as The Plague Angel, from 2020, obliquely acknowledge the pandemic, they are dominated by animals rather than people. The collages incorporate quirky headlines about locusts and murder hornets, or monumentalize birds against a debris field of retro iconography. In Humboldt Park Winter Woodpecker (Among the Spirits), the eponymous bird is perched among an intricate bricolage of musical notes, jaunty skulls, a raven, a scorpion, and stock illustrations of men and women that could have been clipped from postwar catalogues. The mood of sinister schmaltz is central to Fitzpatrick’s aesthetic; every reference is so self-aware that even allusions to murder, drugs, or other weighty fare feel cheeky. Likewise, in Humboldt Park Tern (Longing for the Sea), the presentation is both ennobling and kitschy, with the namesake seabird surrounded by a similar explosion of skulls, flowers, kitten heads, and cartoon characters. In mythology, birds are emissaries from the afterlife; Fitzpatrick’s birds, framed against litter of long-gone Americana, look as though they’re here to remind us that nothing lasts forever.
The collages are so rambunctious, and their gridded compositions so meticulously choreographed, that viewers must get close to experience their tactility. But the closer one gets to the art, the farther away this jazzy, all-nite, gin-and-tonic version of Chicago seems. If the exhibition’s title invites thinking of Fitzpatrick as the Jesus of Western Avenue, then he is a self-appointed savior, redeeming Chicago from encroaching banality by insisting on its dynamism. The show isn’t a critique of gentrification but a seductive, idiosyncratic Baedeker that suggests we might still find a bygone city lit by the Technicolor glow of cocktail bars and beachfront hotels, a city of louche pleasures and casual vice. It’s no accident that much of the period Fitzpatrick preserves here roughly coincides with his childhood in the 1960s. Nostalgia is a kind of escapism, and so is his art.
Fitzpatrick has said this will be his final museum show; perhaps like those birds in Humboldt Park, he knows when it’s time to move on.