Jim Lutes

Zolla/Lieberman Inc.

Despite a candy-colored palette and upbeat pictorial rhythms, these are Jim Lutes’ most discontented paintings. They exhibit a kind of stunned mania and a purposeful lack of conviction that is extremely absorbing. Lutes freely mixes diffident abstraction with exhausted figuration, creating images that are lazy, capricious daydreams with a profound sense of exhausted wisdom. There is a sort of fierce lassitude to his recent endeavors, a resignation that derives from his restless tinkering with imagery and with the language of paint that often serves to circumscribe or obfuscate them, all of which results in a bitter and moody vision.

These dreary, decidedly murky layers possess a curious gusto. Lutes begins almost all of his recent paintings with vestigial bits of imagery; they suggest narratives that are more or less loosely rendered with turgidly colored, indistinct fields. Bits of a city, a water tower, a landscape, rudimentary and bulbous disembodied faces, a refrigerator, a scary creature are all rendered with economy and a kind of aimless neutrality. Over these tentatively articulated pieces of the world, Lutes slathers on a web of treacly lines and brightly colored arcs that sits undigested on the surface of his paintings. These cursive wanderings deflate the iconic nature of the matter they obscure—laxity comes to greet indecisiveness in a poignant embrace of fatty interlacing that often has a surprisingly mesmerizing effect. As in the work of Peter Saul or Philip Guston, there is a hard-won soothingness to Lutes’ irreverencies, a brooding turbulence that is never fully cancelled by his application of paint. What began as arbitrary finally becomes—almost in spite of itself—tragicomic and fraught with possibilities.

Straightforward titles such as Upward Futility, Magnanimous Mope, Future in Plastics, and His Dismay indicate the pessimistic and caustic tone of Lutes’ reveries. In Neanderthal Love, 1994, a slope-browed human skull can be discerned among the eellike meanderings of Lutes’ loaded brush. Drips and splotches on this canvas reflect its having been rotated a few times during execution, enhancing its ultimately arbitrary quality. Its festive palette and winsome curves do little to mitigate the omnipresent sense of fatigue—the sense that he has summoned just enough energy to testify to his ennui. In the midst of Tinker’s Damn, 1994, the amorphic and gross creature who waits in its lair—its striated pink mass like some disembodied brain sprouting rudimentary eyes, nose, and mouth, staring vacantly at the viewer while picking its nose—is set adrift in a sea of shapes that vaguely suggest aquatic organic matter. Like some B-movie monster-squid, Lutes’s behemoth is totally dumb and yet still touches on deep-seated human fears. It’s more than a bit of a self-portrait.

James Yood