Chicago

Robert Lostutter

Dart Gallery

When I first saw Robert Lostutter’s paintings three years ago, I found it difficult to imagine the man who had made them. Contradictions abounded in them with such absoluteness, such refusal to permit any resolution or compromise, that I felt I needed to meet him to assure myself that only one person had done them. (Usually it works the other way around for me: the art makes a singular impression that knowing the artist tends to fracture.) Although I have now had several conversations with Lostutter about painting, and find him a very sensible, straightforward person, this hasn’t helped me to solve the enigma of his work. It remains for me as mysterious as ever.

The surface of the watercolors that he has been doing in recent years is irresistibly sensuous, almost sexy. His backgrounds are usually patterns of sky in which, for instance, a deep blue shades into a rose so gradually that it’s impossible to say where one begins and the other ends, or in which orange, purple, or raspberry clouds darken so subtly as they recede that we are, literally, lost in space. Looking at such pictures involves us in a kind of hedonism that undermines what we ordinarily think of as esthetic experience.

However, there is also something undeniably stringent and austere about his work. Lostutter has been painting the same subject matter—faces of men in bird masks—for many years now. The relentless repetition in the content of the imagery is compounded, moreover, by the way in which he executes it. The barbs and barbules of each feather are laid down one stroke at a time. Nothing is suggested; everything is rendered with a meticulousness verging on lunacy. Such obsession imparts to the work a certain asceticism. There is something contemplative about it. The paintings look as if they were done by a process that is half Zen meditation and half manuscript illumination, combining fierce concentration with a total mindlessness—a discipline that borders on a religious experience, like repeating a mantra over and over until it begins to produce the same effects that hallucinogens would.

Whatever the subject matter of men and birds may represent in these paintings, the execution of them is so involved a process that it becomes their subject too. On at least one important level, the experience of making the paintings is what they are about. The imagery we see in them exists as a kind of symbolic reflection on their style. A 1986 watercolor entitled Parrot Watching the Sun Go Down struck me especially in this regard. The sunset as envisioned here looks like a diagonal row of bricks, five that have been laid flat alternated with five more, slightly more orange in hue, that have been set on end. In contrast, the feathers on the face of the bird-man watching this sunset blend seamlessly with the flesh from which they grow.

The row of molten bricks makes the rendering of the light—a subject that we ordinarily think of as liquid and amorphous—into something hard-edged and geometric. Meanwhile, the forms of bird and man, which we would think of as distinct, irreconcilable species, have been fused with a naturalism that defies nature itself. No matter what else he may be, the mournful, impossible beast that Lostutter has created here is also a projection, an extension, of the painstaking, all-consuming act of painting itself. It too combines opposites—monotony and exultation; tedious, mechanical rendering and dramatic, romantic effects—in a way that we would not have thought possible until we saw it.

Colin Westerbeck