Lutes unites realism and abstraction at Renaissance Society retrospective

Jim Lutes mixes up reality and abstraction, and throws in some drywallers just for fun.

By Pete Russell

The Renaissance Society currently exhibits an impressive swath of work from the long and dynamic career of Chicago-based painter Jim Lutes. The show traces the development of Lutes’s distinct style through his experimentation with various techniques and subject matter, making the exhibition as cohesive as it is diverse.

Lutes’s early work often portrays grossly or subtly malformed figures in a semi-realistic setting. The surroundings are realistic in that they depict a recognizable world but are only partially so because the depiction has a comic-book sensibility. This work is idea-driven and relies on a lot of narrative. For instance, “Drywaller” depicts a morbidly misshapen working man. His gut swells out of his shirt, but his arm is so muscular and enormous that it dominates an equal part of the canvas. As is the case with many drywallers and similar craftsman, one of the figure’s arms is much bigger than the other from doing the brunt of the work. A plastered trowel dangles from the gargantuan working arm while the other puny limb holds a beer to the mouth of the red-faced protagonist. The combination of sloth and industry is brilliant.

Disjunction is a theme that carries into the next stage of Lutes’s work, in which he created two distinct layers of realism and abstraction in many of his paintings. In some paintings, the two levels have a sharp boundary, while in others the abstraction melds with the realism. The interaction between the two layers is thought-provoking in all cases, but in some works, “Welder” for instance, the relation is beautiful. The machine depicted in the painting is angular and complete with dials and a grill, but the rest of the room unravels in wild, tortuous brush strokes. “Early Release” depicts an impressionistically painted girl walking down the middle of a street. Overlaying the scene are bright, twirling strokes that create floral amoebas swimming in the foreground. In “He Just Snapped,” a banal painting of a small house is covered with an ominous layer of sanguine streaks. Here as elsewhere, Lutes paints over the recognizable visible world with an abstraction that colors the scene with emotion.

The progression of Lutes’s abstractions through different techniques is the most outstanding aspect of the exhibit. Some abstracts are repetitive and have arabesque patterns, while others use several media at once. Lutes has fabulous works in oil, acrylic, and egg tempera on canvas, linen, denim, and even a Camel cigarette advertisement.  Even with oil he is able to make long, continuous strokes that sometimes transition between different colors. His characteristic swirling style lends itself to acrylic well, where long brush strokes are more easily created. His discovery of egg tempera late in his career makes for some remarkable work painted fairly recently. Its inherent translucence allows Lutes to add a gossamer quality to his already wispy style which characterize his best paintings.

The way that figures and forms emerge from and retreat back into Lutes’s strong-stroke abstracts marks him as clearly indebted to Willem de Kooning. His homage is explicit in the painting “Zaagmolenstraat,” named after one of the streets de Kooning grew up on. The street itself appears bleak in dull and earthy colors, but above it bright strokes play into the sky. We can imagine the young de Kooning walking the same dreary streets as his companions while his mind burst with colorful imaginings. The homage is successful and beautiful, one of the strongest paintings at the show.

Lutes’s playful irony resonates in several works, but never more than when he paints about himself. “The Thing in My Studio,” which was painted over the course of seven years, seems to have particular autobiographical import. A grotesque figure stands tall in a realistic studio. It is a flesh-colored conglomeration of mutant faces, hands, feet, and other parts stacked into a surreal nightmare. In the corner, a cartoonish version of one of Lutes’s own abstracts leans against the wall. The question then becomes, which came first: the thing or the painting?