PRINT December 1988


JIM LUTES’ PAINTINGS ARE everything they seem on first impression: ugly, tragic, self-reproachful, gross, despairing. Somehow, they are also beautiful, comic, accusatory, delicate, and hopeful. They are all these contradictions, and more; and not balanced in some rational dualism, but schizophrenically staggered and sprawled across the surface of his canvases. Intensely personal, even private, these paintings are by and about Jim Lutes. But however singular and vulnerable Jim Lutes may seem, with his raw soul exposed before us, he is not alone. Confronting his own compulsions through an unflinching self-analysis, this artist finds that universal quality of ambivalence implicit in them. In dimensions ranging from the physiological to the psychological, from the personal to the social, he mines that territory where attraction and revulsion coexist. And no matter how deep he digs within himself to find that place, what he brings out is frighteningly familiar. The memories that are vigorously denied by all of us, Lutes refuses to give up. His paintings scavenge the artifacts and raise the haunting spirits of the past, not for fun or mischief, not even for a proper exorcism and reinterment. Instead, Lutes wrests these memories from their comfortable niches in the anecdotal genre, and makes them serve as eccentric landmarks of battles lost to the enemy that perpetually encroaches from both without and within.

Born and raised in Richland, Washington, Lutes collected his first weighty burden there. Richland is the home of the Hanford Nuclear Plant, where Lutes’ parents, grandparents, and just about everybody else in this company town worked hard and proud, and one day cheered together as America dropped a bomb they had all unknowingly helped to make on two Japanese cities not so very different from their own. When the full horror of the A-bomb devastation dawned on many of them, they stopped celebrating, went back to work a little wiser, and rarely, if ever, spoke about it again. In some of Lutes’ paintings, you can still hear that silence.

We can, in fact, hear all kinds of silences, psychic and social, shifting below and around the highly charged images in Lutes’ work, as his idiosyncratic symbolism—at once highly abstracted and nonspecific, yet indelibly charged with the private history and fantasies of the artist—generates an almost baroque aura of confinement, hermetic mystery, and accumulating multiplicities. And no less evocative than these images are the painterly spaces of amplified interference between them. Lutes’ iconography is thus literal without being narrative; sparing us any didactic subtext on the intent and content of his images, he seems to pull them magically out of a past and to juggle them without their strings attached. A guitar amp or a drum kit, emblems from Lutes’ pleasurable and painful adventures playing in a rock band, for example, appear often in his work, yet remain only mute tokens of the melodies and rhythms they once engendered. So, too, the flickering face of a television screen reminds us of Lutes’ obsessive TV addiction without entertaining us with its vice. Mechanical objects, rising out of the artist’s troubled memory of his father’s frustration-filled life as a mechanic, sporadically participate in these paintings, the ephemera of the intense sensitivity and gnawing denial within his family, all families: all the affection and all the anger that wants to be spoken, but cannot be given voice.

Memory, then, in Lutes’ paintings, is the transmogrifying force through which the banal is imbued with the visionary. Like Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, or Jean Genet’s deployment of the mundane object as the envelope for his debased outsider identity, Lutes’ work is the manifestation of a filtering process, a distillation of essential experience through its seemingly extraneous details. This work’s heightened effects are dreamlike and metaphorical, reifying that dimensionless field of vision particular to the mind in which everything floats yet seems anchored in some colloidal miasma. The paintings’ surfaces echo this state and process of mind: out of amorphous abstract surges and splashes of paint, Lutes’ images seem to emerge like unedited glimpses of repressed consciousness.

“I don’t love my belly,” Lutes says, for example, “but it seems that before I could love myself I had to love my belly.” As a sort of merciless fat joke on himself, then, this artist’s typical “protagonist” is a naked or half-clothed composition of exaggerated or surrealistically transformed corporeal protuberances: massive, free-flowing expanses of flaccid flesh that become physically, psychically—almost mythically—larger than life. If this confession haunts us, as do so many of Lutes’ embarrassing, remorseful revelations, it is because by focusing with such unrelenting intensity on the mundane, Lutes is not only able to fix its manifestations as visceral icons of personal pain, but also to use them as potent metaphors for the deeply entrenched social conditions that engender that pain. This is not an art of solutions or consolations, then, but of continuing cathartic struggle, with no happiness to be achieved, just black humor to ease the pain, a softer spot in the angry wall of frustration. When Lutes’ elephantine disfigurations, with a kind of Falstaffian hedonism, proclaim with fragile defiance, “Yes! I have a big belly!,” they at the same time proclaim, “I am a big belly!” Like the body art of Vito Acconci or Bruce Nauman, Lutes’ hyperbolic self-distortions evoke the distortions of the social body as well. Lutes’ figures become for us voluptuous enigmas of the hunger that perpetually feeds but cannot satisfy itself, embodiments of the despised outcast at the center of both our personal and collective consciousness: the consumer, the bum, the loser, the addictive personality, the freak. Lutes’ distortions of humanity—the gigantic headlike glob that stands poised over a woman’s body and sports only a pathetically detumescent penis in The Evening of My Dysfunction, 1986, or the pendulous mass of flesh that spills out of a pair of pants to plunge into the littered gutter of a city street in Crisis on Red Street, 1988—not only concretize the surreal and nightmarish absurdity of his vision, but confirm our distressing conviction that this apocalyptic self-voyeur has somehow managed to crawl inside our skin as well.

The artist’s characteristic portrait, as in Dr. E. Victor, 1985, or The Sins of Man, 1986, is a comic profile of grotesque proportions, the pressure and distortions of each feature serving to contort the others. In their guise as caricature, it would be hard to ignore these portraits’ deliberate allegiances with derisive social models. The comic grotesque has been, after all, a primary tool of satire, its subversive politicization of the personal firmly established by the work of Honoré Daumier and George Grosz, and still flourishing in the continuing tradition of political cartoons and the underground subculture of monster art, including underground comix, custom-car culture, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s Ratfink and his irrepressible children.

But Lutes’ true heritage is, in fact, the one we must recognize as the great American theme of loss; the loss of nature (the loss of or expulsion from the Garden of Eden, a paradise lost), the loss of innocence. In Lutes’ work, we find that loss continually articulated in the evocation of decay. That decay—implied as a crisis of spiritual, physical, sexual, and social wellbeing—certainly suggests some longing for a past ideal, but nevertheless posits such an image as impossibly distant, a dreamy background for an overwhelmingly brutal present. Yet the distance between hope and despair in Lutes’ work isn’t a measurement of time (for his nostalgia has no date on it), but of perception and receptivity: in these hypersubjective paintings, there exists no separation between physical and emotional reality; they echo each other too closely to tell them apart.

Filth, confusion, and impotence, then, are inexorably entwined. Filth as a social transgression and division is expressed in this art’s unmistakable rejection of the elegant refinement or polish of “high” art. Filth as the essential social condition of urbanity finds its way into this work in the frames Lutes assembles, scavenged from the scrap wood of construction sites where he has worked and from the gritty ghetto streets of his chosen home base, Chicago. And filth, contributing its clutter to the dense claustrophobia of his depicted scenes—litter scattered along a deserted avenue or strewn across a vacant lot—is a reminder that we are not alone. It speaks of an unseen force, and just by asking who left this here? evokes the invisible crowding that presses in on us from all the boundaries we’ve established that we think will protect us, but never really can. And yet the indulgent pleasure that Lutes insinuates into his pollution makes it all so perversely cloying, like smog with a silver lining. Filth as the ultimate social intrusion, the unnerving impingement of the suppressed or evaded, the unsanitary tide of disorder, washes through and out of these paintings to sully the art establishment’s pristine white walls. And this filth is, of course, as much as anything, the subversive emanations of the artist’s psyche, yet another item in his agenda of self-loathing. Lutes’ blatant admissions of sloth, his humiliating confessions of sexual powerlessness, his seemingly total capitulation to the infantilizing forces of contemporary life, represent both a subconscious system as well as a conscious strategy that serves to undermine authority and transgress our sensibility. In his Head in Fog, Mind in the Gutter, Brain on the Shelf, 1987, for example, we find the artist’s head transformed into a billowing fog that is part trash, part sloppy painterly expression. The Consumer, 1987, gives us a creature that is part face, part fetal pig, and whose revoltingly pink flesh is plastered with the “badges” of our culture’s nourishment—junk food, beer, cigarettes. The Inherited Sins, 1987, unabashedly displays for us the rancorous filth that piles up in the artist’s studio, prominent in it a festering heap of unwashed clothes. Airing his dirty laundry in public, Lutes tells us a lot more about the artist’s inherited sins than we might either expect or even want to hear. Filth, chaos, oppression, sin—Lutes wears the same rags we do. As his seemingly casual pile breaks down into abstract swatches of paint, it is loaded with subliminal suggestions of the tattered shrouds that hang in the back of everyone’s closet.

These paintings, booby-trapped with coded icons for our own degenerate guilt, force us to tread through regions of insecurity, terror, and dread. And even as we gingerly try to pick our way through, we can sense the fault line of social instability buried far beneath, threatening its inevitably catastrophic seizures. The dysfunction of Lutes’ lame and listless characters could easily be mistaken for the inertia of ennui. But these paintings speak, in actuality, of a far more dramatically enervated form of paralysis than that. In his Lazy, 1985, we get a rare, disturbing look directly into the face of Lutes’ demon of lethargy, stripped of its customary vulgar charade of comic relief. In a nightmarish bedroom, strewn with limp, unwashed clothes and dirty dishes tumbling out of the sink, Lutes’ ominous pursuer—mortality—pays a visit in the form of a monstrous swirl of white paint that looms over the artist’s bed to flash a frighteningly toothy leer. Just above his heart the bedraggled artist balances an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts. Just beyond the reach of his hand, a telephone receiver lies off its hook. With these terse poetic gestures, Lutes has marked out that place where morbid self-obsession severs all its ties with the world and meets its own image. Perhaps the greatest risk that Lutes takes with his work is consistently, metaphorically, hanging somewhere on that disconnected line, grasping at a circuit that may already be dead. For at issue is what permanent warp in objectivity may result from the constant contortions of this artist’s subjective conceptualization. When someone journeys so far into himself for as long and as often as Lutes has, there would likely be some degree of permanent withdrawal, or at least some point of diminishing return(s). Lutes’ penetrating insights have helped him to locate his demons, but the mania of his infatuations with them have inflated them to monstrous proportions. Can such a well-fed beast maintain its rage and not grow tame, and even if so, can the artist still hold the reins?

The edge of Lutes’ art is honed against no one extreme, but against and amongst many. The balances between personal introspection and social resonance, between obscurity and accessibility, between humor and horror, intelligence and stupidity, optimism and nihilism, are not givens; they are the elusively shifting margins around this work. These pictures cut a thin slice through consciousness, right where life’s internal and external spheres are fused together. The remarkable ambivalences that swing through Lutes’ work can only be hinged here.

Ultimately, Lutes, like his Chicago forebears Roger Brown, Gladys Nilsson, and Jim Nutt, wavers in the doorway between identification and detachment. He needs to be the outsider looking in, whether he is confronting himself or the world. Yet this position of involvement without membership is a problematic one, as any “marginal” artist’s territory threatens to become co-opted and absorbed by either their own or their audience’s expectations. Lutes himself worries if he’ll be able to sustain his teetering stance. To avoid toppling either one way or the other, he must struggle to keep his personality split like a hair. With the unmediated eccentricity of the naive artist, and the analytical simulationist eclecticism of the sophisticated anarchist, Lutes has managed to invent his own parameters of spontaneity and unpredictability with each painting. Essential to his success at this is his continuing failure. Continuing to resist cultural order, refusing to shy away from the clichéd, the stupid, the ugly, the inane or banal, Lutes in fact courts failures of all kinds as he seeks to find new regions of himself where the misfit identity can mock or derail us.

Carlo McCormick lives in New York and writes regularly for Artforum . He is associate editor of The Paper.