Gladys Nilsson. Photograph: Wm. H. Bengtson. Courtesy of Pentimenti Productions.
As a teenager, Nilsson attended after-school classes and lectures at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). When she began to think about college, SAIC felt like the natural choice and was the only school for which she submitted an application. As a student, she frequently visited the Art Institute of Chicago and was particularly fascinated with A Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat, delighting in the artist’s mixing of colors and compositional organization. Similar to Seurat, Nilsson’s works present intricate and enigmatic dramas animated by stylized characters. The densely layered content of her paintings, however, places her closer to the Northern Renaissance painter Hieronymus Bosch, as her figures engage in scenes of courtship, gastronomic delights, and narcissistic passions. In addition to art historical references, Nilsson addresses vernacular imagery and autobiographical concerns with a playful and often ironic tone.
Nilsson’s exhibition history is extensive. She was a member of the Hairy Who and exhibited at the Hyde Park Art Center alongside James Falconer, Art Green, Suellen Rocca, Karl Wirsum, and her husband, Jim Nutt. While completing her undergraduate degree, she primarily used oil paints, but she shifted to more portable and flexible watercolors when she became pregnant with her son Claude in 1961. Today, Nilsson is recognized as a premier watercolorist, but she has also experimented with several mediums, including silver ink on black paper and acrylic on canvas.
In the 1960s, Nilsson became intrigued by the female form, which she perceived as both a spectacle and a source of power and humor. In the 1970s, both her life in Chicago and her travels abroad featured heavily in the content of her work, as she drew upon images and scenes from her own life. After a residency at Arizona State University in the 1990s, Nilsson returned to experimenting with monotypes and etchings. Her recent works combine her characteristic attention to minutiae with casual, gestural elements.
Nilsson met Jim Nutt in her third year at SAIC; they famously spotted each other across the school’s cafeteria and were married six months later, in 1961. Following the success of the Hairy Who exhibitions in the late 1960s, the couple moved to Sacramento in 1969 after Nutt received an offer to teach drawing at Sacramento State College. Nilsson later reflected that she felt a markedly more gendered atmosphere in California as compared to her experience in Chicago, where she had felt viewed as an equal to her male contemporaries.
Gladys Nilsson and Jim Nutt returned to Chicago in 1976 and settled in Wilmette, IL, where they reside today. In 1990, Nilsson began to teach courses at SAIC; she remains on the SAIC faculty in the Department of Painting and Drawing.
A Girl in the Arbor #13 (2013)
Collage with gouache, watercolor, colored pencil, and crayon on paper
Girl in the Arbor #13 is the last collage in a series of works in which a woman sits on a wooden chair nestled beneath a canopy of trees. Throughout the series, swimming around her, and embellishing her body, are a jumble of objects cut from the glossy pages of Vogue magazine and books on the history of art. This isn’t the artist’s first foray into collage, as cut-outs appeared in her work exhibited at the Hyde Park Art Center in the 1960s. Nilsson’s childhood hobby of cutting out paper dolls also resonates playfully in these vibrant collages.
In the center of the composition, a large woman wraps her fluid body around two green tree trunks—or did the trees sprout up while she sat? Her serene face is a reproduction of a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci from the Royal Collection. A sleeping man from a Goya etching uses her round bottom as a pillow, while the rest of her body is adorned with an absurd number of zippers, belts, buckles, and chains expertly cut from Vogue. These accessories hinder her movement and reveal their impracticality: her legs are ensnared by a string of red beads; one of her ankles is tethered and wrapped in leather belts; and the other is bleeding what appears to be bright, red nail polish as a butterfly bandages her vulnerable, and poetic, Achilles heel.
The forest floor below her, comprised of text about snakes torn from the book Snakes of the American West, suggests a biblical read of the figure and the various luxuries dripping from the trees like ripened fruit. It is tempting to ascribe meaning to the playfully collaged elements; instead one might simply enjoy the wonderfully bizarre and often humorous relationships among the cut-outs. For instance, in the bottom right corner, situated next to a cutout of the Pisa cathedral and an architectural column which comically stands in for the famous leaning tower, is a Greek bronze head. The classical head seems to comprehend her tragic fate as the proxy Leaning Tower of Pisa teeters above her at an exaggerated angle. Clever juxtapositions such as these abound in this collage and happily require the viewer to return for further exploration and delightful discovery.