Jim Lutes

Conversations about Jim Lutes regularly devolve into assessments of his “Chicago-ness,” or the degree to which the artist from Washington State who relocated to Chicago for his MFA and remained here has absorbed deep-seated local traditions into his art. Is Lutes heir to the roughneck figural surrealism dating back to Chicago artists such as Ivan Albright, Seymour Rosofsky, and Ed Paschke? Is his predilection for exploring blue-collar themes with an assertive “up yours” cynicism and dark humor an act of seamless continuity, the artist a working-class Chicago craftsman with a paintbrush? This overview of twenty-two canvases dating from 1982 to 2007 seems to suggest that such Chicago-specific readings might tell only half the story, that Lutes came to the city embracing its tradition of idiosyncratic visionaries and initially worked in their wake, but in time developed a highly personal pictorial language that largely transcends the confines of place.

Lutes’s The Evening of My Dysfunction, 1985, could be a companion piece to Albright’s And Man Created God in His Own Image, 1930–31. Both works are lurid, merciless explorations of the male body as a decaying, slovenly, and impotent vessel, a relentless compendium of mania. In Lutes’s painting, an armless, headless torso is held up by a single, stumpy leg, its body only a massive distended gut with eyes where its nipples should be, a tiny, flaccid penis for its nose. Standing over a reclining naked woman, the night skyline of Chicago twinkling in the apartment windows, the creatural man is presented as both pathetic and deserving of empathy.

By the time he made Welder, 1991, Lutes had introduced a crucial and seemingly dissonant element to his canvases: non-figurative abstraction. In this painting he depicts an interior space with a carefully detailed generator, but has slathered a great deal of the image with broad, curvy brushstrokes that appear independent of the scene they partially efface. This teetering between representation and abstraction, with one or the other being given more weight, depending on the painting, creates intriguingly contradictory pictures that risk being caught in an ambiguous warp between narrative and process. The works are always, though, assertions of the activity of painting and offer more than just a push and pull between its employ as a means and an end, between the depictive and the abstract, between flatness and perspective, into a kind of willful meander that becomes both formal and psychological.

The large painting Zaagmolenstraat, 2006, shows the eponymous Rotterdam street devoid of human presence, as in an early Thomas Struth photograph. Over the scene, Lutes has spread a thin abstract layer of primarily pale rivulets that seem like ghostly emanations hovering over the Dutch cityscape. Perhaps it is telling that de Kooning, likewise an artist strongly associated with a city not of his birth, and whose work likewise regularly treads the ambiguous lines between representation and abstraction, grew up on the street pictured. In other recent paintings, Lutes seems to evoke his own birthplace in the Pacific Northwest. But while such biographical allusions shouldn’t be overlooked, their interpretation will inevitably be thwarted by the more general pictorial indeterminacy that the artist so deftly achieves.

James Yood