Robert Lostutter

The Renaissance Society At The University Of Chicago

Robert Lostutter’s figurative allegiance, impeccably finished surface, and surreal inflection qualify him as a certified Chicago imagist. But in this exhaustive survey of 224 watercolors his obsessional qualities—control of artifice and single-minded pursuit of subject matter—go beyond the local geographical imperative. Instead we have a realer-than-real depiction of fantastical birdmen, fetishes, and exotic icons drawn from a private dream of tristes tropiques.

Some of the earliest watercolors are preparatory studies for paintings; others are framed to expose marginal notes and color samples which afford insight into Lostutter’s painstaking procedures. In these illustrative compositions from the late ’60s Lostutter concentrates on Richard Lindner-esque females in a chance encounter with Peter Max graphics. These pneumatic Amazons are soon replaced by male torsos, often deprived of limbs and encased in a variety of surface treatments—satin quilting, leather upholstery—that defy epidermal limits. They are embellished with padded codpieces and flamelike dorsal fins, and restrained by mechanical devices, ropes, and cords. Fragmentation and decoration become hallucinatory in a large group of pale, small, sometimes unfinished drawings which are genuinely surreal and delicately perverse. In Night Flower #1, 1972, a torso is outlined with a fringe of hands; elsewhere, figures wear shrouds and hoods, like Wagnerian heroes in René Magritte mysteries. Aerialists are bound to each other but prohibited from connection. Although the bondage and trussing are codes of erotic iconography, these mutilations are less painful than imaginary, and seem to be about the desired objects of eroticism. Themes of domination are mediated by the nuanced colors, pale peach and lavender, and by sweet details like the tights with butterfly and hummingbird patterns.

In 1972 a series of motifs alluded to in earlier works (the male torso whose head is a flower and the big girl who wears a flower in her crotch) coalesce around a trip to Mexico and a romantic yearning for the tropics. What follows is a radical editing out of props and contingent details of costume and surreal embroidery. Instead Lostutter paints heads, generalized Indian types with brick-tinted flesh which is dramatically muscled after the earlier pale types. Most of the heads are covered with feathers which grow from or are embedded in their skin. Or they wear orchid-derived petal masks, or leaves in their headband bonds, which also cut through their mouths.

A progression from make-up to artifice to fetish is implied in these portraits. Lostutter’s noble savages become artifacts, phantasmagorical fragments captured by a collector. Grafted from nature, based on ornithological models, the plumage decorates but also obliterates human physiognomy and identity. An inscription on a self-portrait confirms that for Lostutter birds of paradise, despite their beauty, are still birds of prey. In a 1974 series, “Birds of Heaven,” wary cotingas and disdainful red-throated bee-eaters look malevolently over their shoulders and down their metallic beaks. They are transformed and imprisoned by plumage, communicating little save their own beauty. In the recent series of double portraits “Forktailed Wood Nymph and Ruby-Topaz Hummingbird,” 1982, characters may meet on a page, but rarely operate as couples;they’re more like posing fashion models. Locked into undefined but vast atmospheres, they appear as sample specimens for comparison, observation, and admiration. More unsettling martyr types shed tears that look as though they were carved of sand and evoke images of Saint Sebastian as victim and offering.

Several times in the exhibition I stopped to marvel at Lostutter’s ability to capture the iridescence of ruby, sapphire, and emerald with red, blue, and green. But again the surrealist model springs to mind, and the virtuosic skins of the paintings become barriers for the viewer. The crystalline surfaces, like the gorgeous masks of the depicted, deny entry into this hermetic world.

Judith Russi Kirshner