When I went to art school at the start of the 90s, the Chicago Imagists were the academy. Even though the artists who were grouped under that banner resented and rejected the label, as any artist would, they were the monolith with which incoming students at SAIC had to reckon.

The odd stance of this group was an insistence on outsider or naive status combined with a stiff, often anal technique. It made for pictures that often came off as calcified jokes. An even unfunnier, more puritan Surrealism. A studied otherness that almost always felt like a contradiction that could never be squared.

My one memorable experience with any of their work back then was going to the Ed Paschke retrospective on acid. When me and my friends left the museum, passersby grew electrical rays out of their bodies and vibrated like the figures in his paintings. Sober, the same pictures left me cold.

Since seeing the amazing Christina Ramberg retrospective at the Art Institute a few weeks ago, I’ve been trying to formulate why her work grabs me while her friends’, husband’s, and colleagues’, doesn’t.

It has something to do with not trying to be funny, maybe. Her paintings are mysterious and self-contained. The near-absence of faces gives these pictures a distance. They often feel like they have their back to you. There are rarely hands and feet either, but they’re almost all human bodies; or, rather, torsos.

I don’t care much about what statement Ramberg was trying to make politically, but her art is clearly about constriction and control. The way bodies carry whatever it is we are, or fail to do so.

There’s a wall of homemade dolls from Ramberg’s collection in the show. They, along with cut-up comic book frames, are some of the jumping-off points for her paintings. But inspiration and influence doesn’t explain where she ended up. These are uniquely odd images that lodge in the mind without ever explaining or revealing themselves.

Ramberg died young and her last work—quilts and loose abstract paintings—hint at a change of direction she never lived to see to the end. These late things don’t work the way the strictly controlled earlier work does. When I go back to see the show next, I’ll probably stay in the first galleries and skip the last.

It’s not that her last things are bad, it’s just that they don’t cast the same menacing spell.

I talked to Bruce Wagner about his new book and other things.