Before The Who There Was The Hairy Who

Who remembers the Plug Bug on the ComEd building?

October 3, 2018

Photo by PA Images/Sipa USA

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It is not unusual for Chicago Sun-Times Neil Steinberg to alert me to some cool happening in Chicago. In this case it was his blog entry about The Art Institute of Chicago's exhibition of works from The Hairy Who, an art collective with a very rock and roll name. It reminded me that I wrote about one of those artists in Lin's Bin 15 years ago. It was a question about a piece of public art that has since been buried in new construction.

Elissa Seeman wrote in 2003 

“I have a burning question that I hope you can help me with. On Dearborn in the Loop, between Washington and Randolph, there is a building whose back faces State Street.  This is the block that used to be 'skate on state.' I walk from the train station past this building every day and I am always puzzled by the mural painted on the east-facing side.  It is called “plug bug” by Karl Wirsum, for ComEd.

What is the cultural, commercial, or other signficance of this mural?

Wouldn’t it be better to have an image of part of chicago’s history that we can be proud of, or a picture of inspiring landscape/ skyline that reflects some kind of pride.  I don’t understand the Plug Bug.”

The Plug Bug was created for the first Gallery 37 in 1991 when art students and underprivileged youngsters formed a summertime art collective.  The 'Plug Bug' was not created for ComEd.  I called the artist Karl Wirsum at the School at the Art Institue of Chicago where he’s on the faculty.

Karl explained the city of Chicago wanted the barren wall of the ComEd building covered with a mural for the first Gallery 37. 

What I especially like about Karl Wirsum is his association with a group of artists in the 50’s and 60’s called the Hairy Who.  Andrea Mulder-Slater wrote that the goal of Mr. Wirsum and the Hairy Who was to express themselves in a style which was quite different from the accepted norm. The six were interested in impurity and excessiveness.

Yeah, the Hairy Who long before Pete Townshend gave us the Maximum R&B of impurity and excessiveness.  

Peter Bacon Hales describes the Hairy Who as "the Chicago School of antic representational surrealists."  And claims the Plug Bug was “skillfull, recognizable, imaginative-all the things most commonly cited by citizens as appropriate to public art.”

Elissa wonders why the wall wasn’t covered with a mural of the skyline which I guess would provide its own aesthetic irony inasmuch as we would be viewing  a skyline painted on part of the skyline.

Karl Wirsum told me the Plug Bug is supposed to be a lightning bug.  And what is more evocative of a summer night in Chicago than 5 year old children, band aids on skinned knees, peanut butter jars in hand, running up sidewalks, chasing sparking insects as the evening deepens into night.  And the air suddenly electric with fireflies is filled with giggles and shrieks, kids urged on by parents who know this one of those moments that can never be recovered.  So Elissa, when you walk by the plug bug this morning, suspend your search for signficance and meaning.  Consider The Hairy Who.  But most of all think not of where you are, but where we all have been.

Karl Wirsum. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, 1968. The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Frank G. Logan Purchase Prize Fund. © Karl Wirsum.