Teeming with clusters of distorted humanoids and bundles of limbs, and animated by elephant trunks sprouting from the paper’s edge, the visual clamor of People Houses belies the work’s complex structural logic. Nilsson has divided this space into discrete compartments and angled planes, demarcating the tight composition with watercolor, a medium typically associated with looseness and spread. Her fantastical creatures participate in a familiar world, engaging in relationships and conducting daily activities: driving cars, strolling down streets. While these layered vignettes are both of the real world and of Nilsson’s imagination, she views them as springboards for new stories. The work “shouldn’t just be about what I’m thinking; it should also be about what somebody else brings to it,” the artist has declared.
This watercolor’s playful tenor, grotesque figures, and cartoonish forms exemplify the defining attributes of the Chicago Imagists, a group of artists working in a figurative mode that formed around the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1960s. Rejecting the approach of the New York art world, then dominated by Pop art, the Imagists looked to Surrealism’s dreamlike narratives and absurd juxtapositions and to comic books for new graphic languages. A product
of this moment, Nilsson’s vivid visual lexicon also drew from the details of her life: “I’m small scale,” she has said. “I watched little things that happened during the day on all levels.”
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)