Robert Lostutter,  Kyōsei 1 Deep Night Garden, 2018, graphite on paper, 18 × 17 1⁄4".

Robert Lostutter, Kyōsei 1 Deep Night Garden, 2018, graphite on paper, 18 × 17 1⁄4".

Robert Lostutter

Robert Lostutter’s exhilaration with drawing—“Nothing excites me more than a sharpened pencil and a clean white sheet of paper,” he has said—was abundantly evident in “Kyōsei,” his third exhibition at Corbett vs. Dempsey. Twenty-six meticulously crafted graphite-on-paper images lined the gallery’s walls. In each of the smaller, ten-inch-square works that hung on one wall, a single masculine head occupied the center of a delicately hatched ground. Facing them, two larger drawings—Kyōsei 1 Deep Night Garden and Kyōsei 2 Deep Night Garden, both 2018—depicted figures from the chest up. This intimate scale solicited viewers’ close attention, which the drawings’ nuanced tonal shifts immediately rewarded. In some of the pictures, a dense gray setting pushed the central figure forward, while in others, a lighter ground emphasized a gracefully modeled neck. Each of the smaller works depicted a figure in three-quarter profile; the larger works were frontal. Certain faces, such as that of Kyōsei 25, 2018, looked askance at the viewer, though many stared off into the distance. Several subjects, including that of Kyōsei 26, 2018, craned their necks and crossed their eyes; whether this pose was one of agony or ecstasy was hard to say.

Significantly, Lostutter substantially modified the physiognomy of each member of this assembled “tribe” (the term used in the exhibition’s press release). Arrays of floral and avian forms amended each figure’s sculpted features in hybrids that at times evoked African masks, such as the composite human and animal features of Baga Banda helmet masks, and the modern West’s appropriations thereof. In some works, the division between figure and ornament became unclear, as when the scalp of the figure in Kyōsei 16, 2017, starts to resemble lettuce leaves, the neck extending into shell-like protuberances, or when the visage in Kyōsei 5, 2016, confidently displays what appear to be gills. In certain works, the alterations overwhelmed the form entirely: In Kyōsei_ 20, _2018, the subject’s ears stretch into stiff points as floral entities emerge from his mouth, threatening asphyxiation.

Lostutter has been making figurative work in Chicago since the early 1960s, when he enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. While he has achieved considerable institutional success, including retrospective exhibitions at the Renaissance Society (1984) and the Chicago Cultural Center (2006), his historical position in the annals of Chicago art from the ’60s forward has often been unclear. His experimental work from that decade, resonant with Richard Lindner’s vibrantly clad, eroticized figures from the ’50s and ’60s, seems aligned with the contemporaneous interests of other Chicago artists such as Jim Nutt, Ed Paschke, or Christina Ramberg. But Lostutter didn’t show with any of the Imagists at the Hyde Park Art Center and seemed to miss out on the bright lights of their international exhibitions and subsequent canonizations. In the context of a recent spate of area exhibitions examining histories of art and artists in Chicago during the ’60s and ’70s, “Kyōsei” made a compelling argument that these histories need to be kept porous and mutable.

Lostutter does not seem overly concerned with his historiographic fate, however. These drawings spoke more to a sense of distress regarding the fate of the natural world, and seemed to lament humanity’s abdication of responsible cohabitation (both with other humans and with other life-forms). The exhibition’s title, which can be translated from Japanese as “cooperative living” or “symbiosis,” signaled a yearning for the more intimate relationships modeled by Lostutter’s graphite figures. At the same time, it underscored the problematic connection these works draw between an expansive characterization of the non-Western (whether West African or Japanese) and an imagined symbiosis between humans and nature. A poem by Lostutter, reproduced in vinyl on the gallery wall, voices this desire: AT THIS VERY MOMENT / MY LIFE AND THIS EARTH ARE ENTWINED. / I HAVE CHOSEN MY PATH AND I TAKE A SIDE. Lostutter’s dedication to producing a world in which humans might live in a healthier relation with the environment is admirable. Yet environmentalist movements themselves have long been haunted by racialized imaginaries. Lostutter’s decades-long practice of patiently forming new visions, mark by mark, emphasizes the vast amount of labor required to realize a world where his figures might survive, and hints at the even larger task of making that world a truly just one.