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Jim Nutt, Wee Jim's Black Eye, 1986. Acrylic on Masonite with artist's painted frame, 26 1/8 x 21 inches. The Bill McClain Collection of Chicago Imagism, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

Jim Nutt

The Art

Wee Jim’s Black Eye

Some kind of trouble may have happened to someone named Jim. One of his eyes is black and larger than the other. His nose looks swollen. Questions arise. How did Jim get this black eye? Was Jim picked on, or has he picked on someone else and started a fight? Was the conflict really necessary or could it have been avoided? The artist’s name is Jim, so could this perhaps be a portrait of himself? If so, has he depicted real injuries, or are the black eye and swollen nose symbolic of how he feels and thinks about a conflict with someone? Is it even possible that Jim has had some arguments about his art and this is how he feels as a result? Is he suggesting that conflict or injury can sometimes be a result of the life of an artist?

Wee Jim’s Black Eye is a quirky play on the history of portraiture and self-portraiture, in which artists have used the human face and figure–their own and that of others–as the subject of compelling art. Portraiture not only shows the external features of a person, often with identifying objects and possessions, but also conveys messages about the character, status, and interests of the subject. Jim Nutt shows Wee Jim’s head and shoulders within an orderly, patterned setting, framed in a rectangle that includes a drawing board and a drawing pencil held in Jim’s hand, indicating his career as an artist. His sweater is covered with a regular, triangular pattern of light and dark gray. The roomful of squares behind his head contrasts with the curved lines of his dark hair, his puffy cheek, and the roundness of his mismatched eyes and nose, making his head and hand stand out from the severe geometric shapes surrounding him. Below his nose is a dark oval that could be interpreted as a drop of blood from Jim’s bulbous nose, but more likely is the vertical groove in the middle area of his upper lip known as the philtrum, which Jim Nutt emphasizes in most of his portraits.

Bordering the portrait are repeated patterns, including rainbow-like curves and interlocking abstract shapes like daubs of paint or linoleum designs. They stabilize and frame the portrait as well as emphasize its curving forms. All this meticulous organization contrasts with the disorder suggested by Jim’s black eye, and could suggest that the life of this artist has contained some conflict with the rules and order of the surrounding world.

The Artist

Jim Nutt

Jim Nutt has said that he typically starts his portraits by drawing an eye. “And as the eye is being drawn, it has some character to it. Not necessarily good character…..It may have something that you sort of identify, in the same way as when you see a stranger and you immediately form some kind of opinion. I form an opinion about the eye. And if I like it or it’s interesting to me, then I’ll try to get a nose to go with it.” He thinks he notices how people look because he spent his childhood moving frequently and starting new schools, and he spent a lot of time observing how people were looking at him. “I do read those kinds of things and take them very seriously.” He recalls being labeled “wee Jim” by a friend from Scotland, where the word “wee” is used for “little”.

Jim Nutt is known for the lively and often grotesque figurative paintings he made when he was a young man recently graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and part of the Hairy Who group who exhibited colorful, surreal works together and became identified with Chicago Imagism. But he is also known for meticulous reverse paintings on Plexiglas and, for the last thirty years, his highly stylized portraits of women who have old-fashioned hair-dos and bizarre noses. The self-portraiture and black and white color scheme of Wee Jim’s Black Eye represent a period of transition from Nutt’s early works, with their intense colors influenced by comics and pinball machine art, to a more subdued palette influenced by European Renaissance art.

Key Ideas

  • Meticulous figurative painting developed out of an early repertoire of rowdy, colorful, and cartoonish figuration
  • Portraiture and self-portraiture as major genres throughout the history of art
  • Geometric shapes and patterns that ground the figure and emphasize the focus on form

Discussion Questions

  1. What are your ideas about what is happening in this scene? What do you see that suggests these ideas? The artist has said he starts a painting by drawing an eye, and eventually adding a nose. How has the artist pulled your attention toward the eye? How has he used geometric patterns to invite you to look closely at Wee Jim?
  2. What is your opinion about whether this painting is a portrait of someone or a self-portrait of the artist? What objects has the artist included to help you arrive at your opinion?
  3. Artists often use mirrors to create self-portraits. What are some ways the picture implies either a window or a mirror?
  4. The title suggests that Jim has suffered the kind of “black eye” injury that can result from a physical fight. Wee Jim might really have been in a fight, or this image could be a metaphor for hurtful criticism, or self-criticism, that an artist may experience. Have you ever had doubts and criticized yourself for your abilities; or, have you received criticism from others? What were some of the thoughts and feelings you experienced? How could you show what happened by making a work of art?