Urs Lüthi


The first large-scale exhibition of Urs Lüthi’s paintings was clear proof that the artist has not been untrue tohimself in switching from photography to painting. Quite the contrary. Lüthi’s overriding theme—in brief, our essential helplessness in reconciling the triviality of our lives and the sublimity of our dreams—has found truer expression in his paintings. The discrete images in his earlier photographic sequences, in which he exposed the comedy and tragedy of everyday events, are layered one upon the other in the paintings, creating a single, multidimensional image. Lüthi’s method of building up the image creates an imaginary depth that underscores the pathos of his subject matter. Inner and outer reality, high expectation and insignificant outcome, are thrust together within one and the same plane of representation, and the discrepancy between them is obvious.

The show’s organizing concept was “Sehn-Sucht,” a play on Schen (looking) and Sucht (addiction), that Lüthi defines as incessant longing. The tightly layered construction and controlled surface of his paintings seemed to function as a kind of scaffolding that supported the artist’s bold flights into the realm of “Sehn-Sucht,” or at least prevented him from suffering a fatal fall. His precise installation of the paintings served a similar purpose. It was designed by the artist such that two discrete groups of paintings occupied one of five rooms. The titles of the individual series (all of which were begun in 1984 and are ongoing) further designated their common theme by isolating specific aspects of “Sehn-Sucht” and defining them unequivocally as “self-portraits”: “Selbstportraits aus der Serie der vagen Erinnerungen” (Self-portraits from the series of vague recollections), “ . . . der grossen Abenteuer” ( . . . of big adventures), “ . . . der Traumpaare” ( . . . of dream couples).

The paintings seemed to question themselves as well as one another; that is, the dialectic between the superimposed images on each canvas was paralleled by the dialectic between the groups of paintings in each gallery. In the last room of the show a series of small seascapes, whose imagery grew increasingly clearer with each successive painting, culminated in a powerful diptych of a view of the night sea’s horizon. Collectively titled “Selbstportraits aus der Serie der reinen Hingabe” (Self-portraits from the series of pure surrender), they faced a group of strictly nonobjective paintings, each of which was intended to represent an abandoned dream.

This exaggerated confrontation merely confirmed what the viewer had gradually sensed on a first run through the show, namely, a rich interplay between images of feelings and feelings about images that transcended any one painting. The consistent (in four of the five rooms), carefully arranged dialogue between abstraction and representation allowed each to appear to be what the other “longs” for: it was as though the paintings embodied the artist’s own melancholic desire. The installation splintered into fragments of feeling that grew, coalescing into a reflexive image that constantly changed its appearance, presenting now this, now that aspect of the ultimately ungraspable image of longing. It was a heartbreakingly comic exhibition; yet for all its conceptual self-irony, it was at th e same time touching and sad. Although Lüthi practically reveled in his theme, he never slipped into embarrassing sentimentality, nor into cynicism either.

Max Wechsler

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.