Calling out the ghosts: In 'The Wonder,' Tony Fitzpatrick turns memory into works of art
Chicago Sun-Times, Aug 2, 2006 by Kevin Nance
The world of Tony Fitzpatrick's art is a man's world -- a Chicago workingman with a couple of bucks in his pocket, bumming around town in a beat-up car with the Sox game eternally on the radio, chewing a cigar and humming a fragment of a tune he once heard a beautiful woman sing in a smoky South Side bar, repeating it over and over. He drives past the long-gone Stockyards and the Coliseum, seeing them clear as day. Past sunset, he stops off at the corner tavern for a lonely beer; past midnight, he takes in an "all-girl revue" that cheers him up, as far as it goes. Finally he's standing on the street, looking at the stars and thinking of his father, that half- remembered melody still stuck in his head.
That's the haunted and haunting world of The Wonder: Portraits of a Remembered City -- The Dream City (Last Gasp/La Luz de Jesus Press, $26.95), the extraordinary second volume of Fitzpatrick's projected trilogy of collections of drawing-collages. It offers both an affordable substitute for his original pieces (which now go for upward of $15,000 each) and the latest chapter in a sort of dream diary of the ex-boxer, poet, actor and all-around man's man who has emerged in the past decade as the quintessential Chicago artist. It's also the latest installment in his mythic narrative of the city as America's great working-class metropolis, a project that began as a tribute to his dad, a traveling burial-vault salesman who ferried his son around town for years before dying of cancer in 1998. Even more than in the songs sung by the bards who came before him (Sandburg, Algren, Terkel), Fitzpatrick's Chicago is as soulful and magical as it is gritty and bruising, with a heart as big as its shoulders.
Although the collages are small in scale, rarely measuring more than 15 by 12 inches, their ambition is epic: to convey what it was to live in Chicago in the mid-20th century as a sort of clear- eyed romantic, finding hope and pathos in the mercantile and mundane.
Most feature a drawn central image -- a human figure, a flower, an animal -- orbited by dozens of found images culled from matchbook covers, postcards and local newspapers and magazines, most from the 1930s through the '70s. Chief among these last are naively chipper ads for cocktail lounges ("Ask for Nectar Premium Beer -- It's a Honey of a Beer") and eateries ("Shangri-La -- World's Most Romantic Restaurant"), but you'll also find reminders of every kind of product or amenity a red-blooded American male could have asked for: booze and cigarettes, racetracks and razor blades, barber shops and bowling alleys.
Every kind of woman, too. As you might expect, strippers, prostitutes and Playboy bunnies proliferate here -- bodacious and matter-of-fact in fishnet stockings or nothing at all, or desperately stealing soap in Gold Coast hotel rooms -- but so do hardworking waitresses dreaming of Vegas, bathing beauties at Edgewater Beach, Bronzeville dancing queens and even a singing South Side mermaid, "pretty as a star inside a star."
Those words, tumbling down the side of the image like one of Chicago's classic vertical theater marquees, come from an element in Fitzpatrick's work that aligns it more with the city's literary and musical traditions than its visual arts heritage. Most of the collages feature poems that elegize the city in a bluesy, tough-and- tender idiom that feels like a collision of Pablo Neruda and Tom Waits. "Holy/smoke/unfurls/in/front/of/your/eyes," goes a line in "Chicago Sky #1." "It is a/lingering/kiss/from/the/tip/of a/no-name/ cigar./It is:/taxi-cab/semaphore,/calling out/ the/ghosts."
Aside from their discreet excellence, these moody, ambient poems also serve as the thematic glue that holds his visual tropes together in a strategy that feels like that of good bebop. The words direct us to each collage's central image as the melody, while the secondary images bounce off it as ornament and counterpoint, everything working together in an organic -- it's tempting to say symphonic -- system of meaning.
No, you can't always connect all the dots in a Fitzpatrick collage, whose juxtaposition of elements can sometimes seem obscure, but what of it? You can't always follow the free association in Joseph Cornell's boxes or Robert Rauschenberg's "combines" (whose playful Americana feels closely related to Fitzpatrick's), any more than you can chase every key change in Charlie Parker.
But even what seems like the purely decorative elements in Fitzpatrick's work -- such as the ubiquitous flowers, especially poppies -- often turn out to have personal significance to the artist. "I had once had a relationship with the poppy," Fitzpatrick, who has been sober for 23 years, told me last week. "It's part of my history."
History, not nostalgia, is what Fitzpatrick is after here; while some of his memories of the city are suffused with romance, others are clearer and harsher. He hits hard at the dominant political culture, lampooning a Chicago Democrat shaking hands and kissing babies "while/the/faithful/blow/idiot/whistles/and/ point/his/way." (A Chicago Republican is no better, his party "lost/in/the/ yesterday/ music/of/virtue/peddlers/ and/frozen-/hearted/cheats.")
Buy it now. At the publisher, Last Gasp.
Or here, at Barnes and Noble.
And volume 2 is also at B & N.