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Panel Portraits

Arthur Rimbaud
Arthur Rimbaud, 1974
Thomas Chimes (American, born 1921)
Oil on panel
21 3/4 x 15 3/4 inches
Private Collection
Between 1973 and 1978, Thomas Chimes created a haunting series of forty-eight portraits of French Symbolist poets, philosophers, and other nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literary and art historical figures, all of which relate somehow to his beloved hero, the French writer Alfred Jarry (1873–1907). Chimes wanted to continue Marcel Duchamp's legacy of putting painting "once again at the service of the mind" in the panel portraits—which required extensive preparatory research into the lives of the subjects, their writings, and their influence. The subject of each portrait is connected either directly or obliquely to Jarry, author of the shocking play Ubu Roi (King Ubu), which shocked Paris audiences in 1896. Jarry’s unconventional life and radical nonconformism had interested Chimes to the point of obsession since the early 1960s. Chimes was especially intrigued by the writer's invention of 'Pataphysics, which Jarry defined as "the science of imaginary solutions" and which he used to create an alternative universe. The portraits reveal the artist's strong sense of affinity and continuity with his iconoclastic avant-garde forebears, all of whom he regards as possessed characters whose work remains as relevant today as when it was first created. "To get to the future you go to the past. To get to the past you go to the future," he explained in 1975, revealing his interest in a 'Pataphysical fluidity of time.

Chimes painted these portraits from carefully chosen photographs of his heroes, seizing upon the photographic medium’s unique ability to capture a fleeting moment in the past. Each image, reminiscent of a sepia-toned nineteenth-century photograph, is enshrined within an oversized wooden frame resembling those often found on the paintings of Chimes's Philadelphia predecessor and hero Thomas Eakins, which situates the work somewhere between a family snapshot and a devotional icon.

Alfred Jarry
Alfred Jarry, 1974
Thomas Chimes, American
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Portrait of Oscar Wilde
Portrait of Oscar Wilde, 1975
Thomas Chimes, American
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White Paintings

Faustroll (L'Infini)
Faustroll (L'Infini), 1988
Thomas Chimes, American
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Thomas Chimes's celebrated series of panel portraits gave way to a series of luminous white paintings that he began in the early 1980s. These hermetic works, whose meaning is often willfully obscured, were created through the application of glaze upon glaze of pigments worked into a white ground and then wiped away to leave only a glowing suggestion of figures and faces, which often float in a circle of pale light. The effect is that of a distant memory breaking through the fog of the unconscious. The apparent emptiness of the works from this period echoes Chimes's feelings of emotional barrenness following his separation from his wife in 1979. His interest in Alfred Jarry and portraiture continues in these white paintings, which often depict the painter’s artistic heroes, such as James Joyce and Erik Satie, whose visages slowly emerge from the flurries of white brushstrokes that cover them like a blanket of snow. In several works based on a photograph of the French writer riding his bicycle, Jarry reappears as his own fictional character Doctor Faustroll, endlessly traversing the unknown landscape of the imagination.

In the late 1980s the series took a different turn when Chimes began to enliven the surface of his white paintings with quotations in India ink from Jarry and other writers, such as Homer and James Joyce. A trip to Greece in the early 1990s renewed the artist’s interest in Greek mythology and led to a new group of diminutive paintings incorporating maps, constellations, and geometric forms. Chimes continues to work in this mode, creating ethereal white paintings with raised lettering on carefully prepared wooden panels measuring just three by three inches. These new works take the form of medallions and often verge on caricature as Chimes continues to mine the deeply provocative ideas of Jarry and his followers.

Concerning Roads
Concerning Roads, 1994
Thomas Chimes (American, born 1921)
Oil on wood
11 7/8 x 11 7/8 inches
Locks Gallery, Philadelphia
James Joyce
James Joyce, 1986
Thomas Chimes (American, born 1921)
Oil on linen
50 x 62 inches
Private Collection, courtesy of Locks Gallery, Philadelphia