Installation view of “Barbara Rossi: Poor Traits” (2015) (courtesy New Museum, New York. Photo by Maris Hutchinson) (click to enlarge)

There are five artists among the Chicago Imagists who did reverse paintings on Plexiglas between the late 1960s and the mid-70s: Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Ed Flood, Karl Wirsum and Barbara Rossi. Their fastidious paintings are bizarre, grotesque, zany, off-color, and — with the exception of Rossi — overtly representational.

While Rossi and her colleagues, inspired by the reverse graphics found on pinball machines, took their cues from a wide range of sources — including lowbrow imagery, vernacular, “Outsider” and non-Western art — she also devised a method of drawing that enabled her to turn inward, to seemingly dream and draw at the same time. Her application of this inward state to the transparency of Plexiglas paintings resulted in singular body of work that does not resemble anything being done at that time or now. For that alone, her work deserves to be better known.

In an interview with the curator Natalie Bell, included in the modest foldout accompanying this exhibition, Barbara Rossi: Poor Traits at the New Museum (September 16, 2015–January 3, 2016), Rossi talks about her simple but demanding method of drawing:

Well, I knew I could draw realistically, but I did not want to use realism to make my art. And I also did not find Abstract Expressionism terribly interesting. So around this time, I developed a self-taught way of drawing without a predetermined end. I would start in the middle of the page and make a drawing that was relatively small, and I gave myself the rule of not erasing anything or making any changes, and when I was satisfied with the form at the center, I would begin attaching something that was different from what was drawn first. I never knew ahead of time what would become of these forms, which is why I started calling them “magic drawings.”

Given her incremental method of drawing, which does not allow for erasure or revision, it is easy to see why painting on Plexiglas appealed to Rossi. The slow, fragmentary nature of her constructive approach enables her to amass different, interlocking shapes and lines in such sweet and off-putting colors such as peach, pink, lavender, wine red, and robin’s egg blue. Moving at an intensely focused and unhurried pace, the complete painting does not reveal itself until the end, surprising, I suspect, even the artist. It’s as if she was able to break spontaneity down to a series of disjointed, highly focused actions, each of which is both complete and incomplete.

Barbara Rossi, “Eye Deal” (1974), acrylic on Plexiglas panel and frame, 41 1/8 x 31 1/8 x 2 inches. The Bill McClain Collection of Chicago Imagism, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (photo by Doug Fath)

By enmeshing the unprompted and the painstaking, Rossi attains a visually mesmerizing state that is fastidious and excessive, ceremonial and orgiastic. Imagine Hans Bellmer’s dolls redone by a team that includes a designer of robots, a forger of samurai armor out of leather, iron, and lace, a Mughal painter using a one-haired brush, and a seamstress specializing in Renaissance embroidery, and you get an idea of some of the possibilities (or should I say personalities) that Rossi is able to channel in her work. Working on the obverse side of the Plexiglas, Rossi applies exact lines and flawlessly flat areas of color, while she adorns the front with what the museum press release calls “beaded constellations of dots” which cast “pointillist shadows” through the transparent support onto the layer of below. Actual light and shadow play a part in these fantastic amalgamations of imagined shapes and linear elements, infusing the paintings with an aura of being simultaneously real and unreal, worldly and unworldly.

In “Gnat-N-Gnaw” and “Quick-N-Quack” (both dated 1975), the forms coalesce into an abstract portrait seen in profile and looking to the left. The combination of flat areas on the observe side and slightly raised dots on the front is both entrancing and disorienting. For one thing, where is the body? Is it the complex shape on the observe side of the Plexiglas? Is it the transparent support on which the raised dots have been deposited? What about the knobs, folds, openings, and protuberances? Why does the form sliding down the front (or face) of “Quick-N-Quack” resemble both a distended eyeball and a stylized phallus encased in an unidentifiable material? What about the forms that are reminiscent of cartoon buttocks and breasts? What about the suggestion of corsets and other undergarments?

Chronologically speaking, “Gnat-N-Gnaw” and “Quick-N-Quack” are the latest works of the nine Plexiglas paintings (1972-75) and nine drawings (1967-68) comprising Rossi’s first exhibition in this city since the 1990s, and her first New York museum show. This small selection of work introduces us to an artist who has followed no trend, doesn’t care about the so-called urgencies of art history, and always gone her own way. At the same time, I don’t think of her work as eccentric.

Barbara Rossi, “Rose Rock” (1972), acrylic on Plexiglas panel and frame, 27 3/4 x 23 3/4 inches (courtesy the artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago)

One of the earliest paintings, “Rose Rock” (1972) seems like a cartoony rendition of a dustup and a pile of undergarments from which an engorged penis sticks out, as if trying to escape the melee within. It does not take much imagination to see the painting as a gathering of distorted body parts, both male and female, hemmed by a diagonal grid of tiny pearls of paint and compressed into flat interlocking shapes, many of which are accented by beaded dots. And if this is not enough to set the mind spinning in unexpected directions, the three limb-like forms undulating up from the painting’s bottom edge evoke both ecstatic and devotional states.

In “Brr’d and Baa’d” (1972), Rossi uses satin and human hair to underscore the divergent impulses she brought into play. In their suggestions of openings and protuberances, bare skin and decoration, scarification and beadwork, not to mention a commingling of the immaculate and the immoderate, the proper and prurient, and the prim and the pornographic, Rossi’s paintings anticipate the work of artists as diverse and interesting as Kathy Butterly, Richard Hull and Amy Sillman. By working piecemeal, and not knowing where she would end up, Rossi uncovers so much more than those who believe that seeing everything is all. Neither coy nor literal, the artist transports the willing viewer to a realm where abandonment has become an erotic ritual – a dance of mind and eye.

Natalie Bell, assistant curator at the New Museum, and Lisa Stone will discuss Barbara Rossi’s practice at a free public event on Friday, November 13 at 5pm.

Barbara Rossi: Poor Traits continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side) through January 3, 2016.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...