Thomas Chimes' art is, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Unlike art that presents the viewer with an intelligible surface, Chimes paints complex interior landscapes that only he can navigate with any assurance.
Yet the mystery and focused intensity of his art, combined with its painstaking craftsmanship, make it a delight to behold, even if its deeper meanings often remain elusive.
A Philadelphia native, Chimes has been developing his unique visual philosophy for nearly 60 years. As he approaches his 86th birthday on April 20, he is being honored with a career retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Comprising about 100 works, the exhibition limns the four major phases of that career, beginning with small landscapes made in the late 1950s.
I discovered Chimes shortly after I moved to Philadelphia in 1982, and I have seen his work a number of times at Locks Gallery and elsewhere, beginning with a 1986 exhibition at Moore College of Art and Design. However, familiarity doesn't automatically produce understanding, for several reasons.
First, as visitors to the retrospective will discover, his art deals with ideas rather than with a commonly shared reality. How does a painter represent ideas? Chimes often does so by portraying their human sources, not descriptively but symbolically. To understand that, viewers need to understand the foundation from which the paintings evolved. Without that knowledge, the paintings speak an alien language.
Museum curator Michael R. Taylor has produced an accompanying book that exposes in detail Chimes' themes and methods. The story is fascinating and edifying, as long as one doesn't make the mistake of being satisfied with the narrative alone. The allure of the paintings goes beyond what they represent as a record of the artist's aesthetic journey.
The challenge in Chimes' art relates to its origins in personal interests, even obsessions, that aren't readily apparent. For instance, the so-called crucifixion abstractions, his first major series, relate to his upbringing in the Greek Orthodox Church.
His so-called panel portraits depict personal literary heroes and other figures connected directly, or indirectly, to the symbolist movement of the late 19th century.
Chimes' primary inspiration has been Alfred Jarry (1873-1907), a French poet and playwright whose play Ubu Roi caused a riot when it opened in Paris in 1896. Jarry believed that writers should reject intelligence in favor of hallucination, and he advocated defiance of authority through absurdity and incoherence.
Mainly, Jarry rejected rationalism and reliance on facts in favor of imagination, intuition and connections through the unconscious mind to a "spirit world." He summarized his beliefs in a made-up philosophy he called " 'pataphysics - the science of imaginary solutions."
The Chimes exhibition is subtitled "Adventures in 'Pataphysics." It isn't clear exactly what that's supposed to mean beyond psychological liberation. If it sounds like nonsense to you, it probably is. More to the point, most of the work in the retrospective revives and reconfigures the agenda of symbolism, a mainly literary movement of a century ago that attempted to suggest ways that people could enter the spirit world.
Symbolist art, literature and poetry are typically mystical, ethereal and arcane. Unlike surrealism, which it preceded, symbolism didn't try to depict this alternative reality visually, as painters Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst and Rene Magritte did, for instance. Symbolists tried to create an atmosphere conducive to such a mental leap.
So does Chimes. This is less apparent in the show's earliest paintings, the bold abstractions that usually include a crucifix motif. Yet they aren't religious paintings per se but arrangements of bold symbols and colors. In that, they suggest Henri Matisse's famous cutouts and his decorations for a Roman Catholic chapel in Vence, France. These pictures, which date from the 1960s, remain vital and energetic. In visual terms, they're the most forceful - and conventional - of Chimes' career.
He followed them with a series of wall-mounted metal constructions that the exhibition describes as "boxes" but that are more like shallow reliefs. We're supposed to recognize a connection to Joseph Cornell, who made surrealist boxes, but only one of these works, the blue-tinged Greta Garbo, is truly Cornellian.
Otherwise, the sleek, satiny surfaces project a vague art-deco character, counterpointed collage-style by individual words, motifs such as lips and sexual organs, drawings, and photographs. They're slyly humorous and provocative, but also sensuous. They represent a sharp transition between the assertiveness of the abstractions and the mystical allusiveness of the panel portraits chronologically just around the corner.
Chimes made 48 of these, all from photographs, and all of people who knew Jarry or who figured in his work somehow, including the scientists Lord Kelvin and Michael Faraday. Marcel Duchamp, another of Chimes' heroes, hangs in this section too, along with more typically literary types such as the poets Charles Baudelaire and Edgar Allan Poe, Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde and James Joyce.
On the surface, these small paintings constitute a symbolist pantheon, and also a personal one for the artist. But the pictures shouldn't be read as conventional portraits because they aren't interpretations of character but evocations of an intellectual fraternity.
With their near-monochrome sepia toning, sometimes fuzzy details, and prominent flat frames of the type favored by Thomas Eakins, these are more properly seen as true icons in the Orthodox sense - objects of veneration that embody the essence of symbolist practice.
This detached mysticism continues through the so-called white paintings, in which Chimes' by-now-familiar characters appear as ghostly presences partially obscured by a milky caul. In some paintings, the images are so faint they look like pentimenti. These meticulously crafted pictures suggest acts of meditation by the artist, who at this point in his career, the 1980s, had become comfortably intimate with his material.
In his most recent paintings, Chimes has become even more recondite in terms of images and more reductive in scale. Some are faint constellation-like arrangements of barely visible dots and Greek text. Others, which he calls "entropy paintings," consist of single white-on-white symbols on three-inch panels. Like physicists searching for a unified field theory, Chimes seems to be trying to distill spiritual experience into a bite-sized, readily assimilated visual package. (Locks Gallery on Washington Square, Chimes' dealer since 1983, is showing a group of these tiny paintings through April 7.)
Chimes' quest becomes understandable only if one is able to perceive the full arc of his career. While individual paintings have distinctive appeal, the chorus that the Art Museum has pulled together provides the strongest possible validation of an admirable painter who refused to bow to art fashion.
Mea culpa: In last Sunday's column about Frederic E. Church, I mistakenly gave the year of Thomas Eakins' death as 1912. Eakins died in 1916.
Art |Art Exhibition
Thomas Chimes: Adventures in 'Pataphysics
Philadelphia Museum of Art, through May 6. 215-763-8100; www.
Art | Master of Mystery
"Thomas Chimes: Adventures in 'Pataphysics" continues at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Parkway, through May 6. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and to 8:45 p.m. Fridays. Admission is $12 general, $9 for visitors 62 and older, and $8 for students with ID and visitors 13 to 18. Pay what you wish Sundays. Information: 215-763-8100, 215-684-7500 or www.philamuseum.org.
Contact art critic Edward J. Sozanski at 215-854-5595 or email@example.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/edwardsozanski.