Philadelphia

Jim Lutes

Temple Gallery

Jim Lutes’ painted imagery—empty beer cans, cigarette butts, Fritos bags, and TV sets—initially seems hardly worth celebrating. What keeps us from turning away from a world we know all too well is the sense of humor and subtle formal intelligence his paintings reveal. Even in a painting as thickly populated with everyday debris as The Spot, 1989, the specificity of the images gives way to the power of paint and to a range of suggestive implications. In Sobriety, 1990, the autonomy of the paint is taken a step further; a large blob of painted marks enters a room, empty except for a single chair, like some giant head, a presence from another world. The strength of this image lies in the direct presentation of this unlikely encounter of the chair and the paint. Never Knew Who He’d Be, 1990, depends on a similar tension, only here the chair is absent and the painterly surface of layered marks glows pink.

Since many of the images here are grounded in the present by the weight of cultural trash, references to the history of painting are as welcome as the abstract wanderings of the paint itself. In Garbage Gut, 1988, perhaps the most unsubtle painting in the group—both the painterly qualities and the art-historical associations redeem the imagery from the obvious. A pile of internal organs in the form of a figure sits behind a table littered with junk-food wrappers, empty beer cans, and the ubiquitous cigarette butts. Each organ is stuffed with the cultural commodity it is meant to process. While the lungs are filled with countless butts, the image mutates into thin smokestacks and fades into a dusky lavender and rose landscape reminiscent of a Claude Monet. The whole figure is topped with a TV head. To its right, floating in its own space, a woman sleeps with her back to the rest of the painting, suggesting another vantage on the waking world.

René Magritte’s influence is felt in several paintings. The most obvious example is His Plan for Her, 1987, a head/torso portrait based on Magritte’s Le Viol (The rape, 1945). Unlike the disarmingly direct approach of Magritte, Lutes’ portrayal of the face as torso reveals a palpable anxiety that confounds the image by likening the top of the head to the rear end of the torso. The result is an awful form that only pure obsession could conjure.

The only too blatant cue from another artist occurs in The Arbiter of tAste [sic], 1989, an obvious rip-off of Philip Guston’s many “head as eye” paintings. Other nods to Guston are less bothersome; Lazy, 1985, a self-portrait of the artist in bed, could easily be seen as a play on Guston’s Painting, Smoking, Eating, 1973. Perhaps the most significant and redeeming similarity between the artists is their shared sense of the power of the material world and painting’s ability to reconcile its pleasures and pains.

Eileen Neff