Urs Lüthi, Selbstportrait aus der Serie der grossen Gefühle (Self-Portrait from the Strong Feelings Series), 1984/85, diptych, acrylic on canvas, each 78 3⁄4 × 59".

Urs Lüthi, Selbstportrait aus der Serie der grossen Gefühle (Self-Portrait from the Strong Feelings Series), 1984/85, diptych, acrylic on canvas, each 78 3⁄4 × 59".

Urs Lüthi

Over the course of the 1970s, Urs Lüthi used the photographic self-portrait to imprint his face upon the public eye. Armed with a camera and a cutting sense of humor, the artist fragmented and reconstituted his own representation until it had seemingly expanded and dissipated into infinite other identities and fleeting narratives, while still retaining the ability to deliver a gut punch: Despite the serial nature of the project, these images emphatically reclaimed an emotional space that went beyond Conceptual art and the cerebral realm.

In the 1980s, amid the exhaustion of the unbridled rigor of neo-avant-garde movements, Lüthi turned from photography to painting, mining the possibilities of the pictorial language to amplify his exploration of the construction of the self. His body of acrylic paintings, “Aus der Serie der grossen Gefühle” (From the Strong Feelings Series), 1983–87, was shown only once, in incomplete form, in 1986, at the Kunst Museum Winterthur in Switzerland, where they were summarily criticized and then promptly forgotten. For this exhibition, Otto Gallery Arte Contemporanea retrieved this long-unseen body of work, which it features alongside more recent sculptures. If Lüthi’s photographs mastered the simulation of another reality, the six canvases on view here exude the power and “alien” modernity that characterized the artist’s changeling aesthetics. Eschewing a mimetic portrayal, Lüthi stylized his self-portrait as a comic-strip character, using a crude outline to represent himself as a paunchy, naked stick figure: two dots for his eyes, one for his aquiline nose, a simple line for his sensuous, full-lipped mouth, and four or five for his hair. Sometimes he is depicted as seated and visibly excited, indifferent and perverse; other instances catch him in moments of awkward exuberance, his hands in the air. The artist fills the contours of these childlike compositions with richly detailed depictions of nude women, painted in Venus-like poses typical of classical statuary or life-drawing classes. Rendered three-dimensional through Lüthi’s adept application of chiaroscuro, these monochromatic figures appear unruffled and delicate. Some stand demurely, their back to the viewer, while others seem more melancholic, with downcast eyes. In the diptych titled, like the other paintings from the series, Selbstportrait aus der Serie der grossen Gefühle (Self-Portrait from the Strong Feelings Series), 1987, the artist portrays himself as a smiling stick figure, arms extended toward the accompanying canvas, on which his wife Ulrike Willenbacher is limned in pale, evanescent colors. Her stance recalls a timid and gracious version of Michelangelo’s David. In another composition, from 1985, the hyperrealistic face and body of a woman slip into the cartoon silhouette of a seated man with a large erection sprouting from his lap against a dense ocher background.

Lüthi’s paintings draw on the dichotomy of male and female, on the tension between the refined and the vulgar, and on disparate formal vocabularies ranging from primitivism to academicism. The one constant is a desire for the beautiful. But the painting subtitled (Madonna degli ubriachi) (Madonna of the Drunks), 1983, breaks from the rules governing the rest of the series. Here, thick smears of paint trace the sinuous silhouette of an androgynous figure, a pure compositional counterweight to the spiraling black line beside it.

Having desecrated classical modes of self-representation, Lüthi has nothing to hide. Ironic and brazen, never taking anything for granted, he turns his focus on techniques into an expedient for creating the contrasts necessary for the continual redefinition of a liquid identity. At the same time, his paintings seek to amplify the emotions associated with certain recurring themes, such as the search for happiness and love, the passion for art history, an acceptance of the physical changes of one’s own body, and the unveiling of modern society’s taboos, sexual clichés, and normative gender roles.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.