Few artists are as ripe for a mid-career survey as Jim Lutes is right now. Typically such exhibitions offer institutional imprimatur and opportunities for critical assessment of an artistic career whose lifespan is, theoretically at least, already half over. But Lutes’ mid-career survey functions in a somewhat more inaugural fashion, by framing his artistic trajectory not as a straight line, nor even in dialectic terms, but instead as a literal re-write of what has come before, wherein the more truly authentic  “beginning” of the artist’s career is posited almost a decade and a half after it began, to much fanfare, with a sold-out solo show at Dart Gallery in 1985.

I have to admit I’d not heard of Lutes prior to seeing this tightly focused and well-elaborated twenty-painting survey at The Renaissance Society. This is due partly to my own L.A.- and California-centric knowledge base, and partly to the fact that Lutes has had relatively few solo exhibitions outside of Chicago. Some of his biggest splashes were made via inclusion in larger group shows, most notably Documenta IX in 1992, the Whitney Biennial in 1987 and the Corcoran Biennial in 1985. Although Lutes’ posts at Illinois State University and, currently, The School of the Art Institute may have made him a familiar face to Chicago artists, he remains less recognizable elsewhere.

Spanning the years 1985-2007, the works on view show the slow coalescing of a material and method that has come to be identified as uniquely Lutes’ own. Some artists spend half their careers searching for an artistic identity, a “signature,” if you will. Lutes began developing his repertoire of lyrical calligraphic marks early on, but hasn’t always known how best to refine, assert or inscribe them. I think that’s what his early psychodramas of the studio are grappling with.

Set in desolate apartment interiors and other claustrophobic urban settings, figurative paintings like Drywaller, Crisis on Red Street, and Evening of My Dysfunction feature male grotesques sporting huge beer-guts, absent or distorted limbs, and the tiny eyes of beached whales. Lutes’ evocative titles entice narrative readings, and, clichéd though they may be, it’s awfully hard not to interpret these awkward and ungainly men as figures of performance anxiety and artistic impotence.

But something else gestates within. Crisis on Red Street, from 1985, shows a male figure peering face down from a city sidewalk into a gutter coursing with blood. From the torso upwards, he’s all stuffed sausage—chalky white and worm-like, without arms or hands, and featureless except for the one whale-eye.  The flurried brushstrokes painted onto this formless tube, however, are undeniably gestural: signifying the presence of the artist’s hand, they’re clearly prototypes of the more extensive lexicon of swirls that Lutes would eventually develop. The figure provides a site for the marks’ inscription and a way for Lutes to covertly pursue what he was really interested in—the possibilities inherent in the marks themselves.

Lutes’ big guys essentially functioned as beards that enabled him to engage abstraction at a time when abstraction was politically uncool. Hence their pervasive air of self-loathing and raw self-abnegation. When I look at these works I can’t help but think of Paul McCarthy’s brutal performance parodies from around this time. McCarthy’s “Painter,” in particular, ridiculed into flaccidity what many saw as abstract expressionism’s phallocentric signature. But whereas McCarthy figured the abstract painter as an emotionally retarded clown, Lutes remained unspeakably attracted to abstraction and the erotic possibilities of the mark-for-its-own-sake. He obviously didn’t hate painting; he just didn’t want to be paintings’ bitch anymore.

Lutes’ development of the mark was hindered by more than just the dictates of fashion. Paint itself resisted what he wanted to do with it, and until he found a way to lube up the working parts, his paintings were stymied by a certain degree of self-consciousness. I don’t care what kind of ‘personal post-modernism’ Lutes may have been developing in works like “Welder,” “Early Release” and “Un Tipo Suave,” (all from the early and mid 90’s), to me these works appear to be trying way too hard to swim with a discursive tide that Lutes wasn’t really all that interested in. The exception is the movie-screen sized “He Just Snapped,” which totally works for me, perhaps because it so successfully dissolves the scene of a crime into the scene of painting itself. Lutes’ signature marks are applied to the surface with palpable effort, as if in slow-motion (each red swath was in fact copied from marks that already existed in drawing form), physically transforming the painting into a windshield covered not in blood or graffiti but the implacable evidence of a paintbrush.

Everything changed (and then again, nothing changed) in 1998 when Lutes “discovered” egg tempera. He stumbled upon this most classical of methods almost by accident while preparing to teach it to his students. In the process of learning how to do it himself Lutes found the medium that he had needed all along. Egg tempera enabled a translucency of application and fluidity of movement that oils and acrylics couldn’t match. Suddenly, Lutes’ hands were freed.

The exhibition presents a number of moments where side-by-side comparisons can be made between the early marks and those made later with egg tempera.  The latter have evolved in complexity to the extent they appear less as brushwork and more as an extensive character set, a glossary of swirls, squiggles, slashes and flourishes so well-defined that each seems to have its own wiggly little personality.

Through a method that ironically allowed him to be “more Jim Lutes than Jim Lutes,” as Hamza Walker put it in a talk with the artist earlier this month (which I watched after the fact on YouTube), Lutes’ post-1998 works revisit earlier painting scenarios and effectively re-write them while keeping the original alive. Paintings like 2006’s Big Guy flaunt what those early figurative works could barely articulate. Zaagmolentraat (20006) returns to pastiche construction methods similar to those of Welder and He Just Snapped, but the garish color schemes are gone, replaced with a more ethereal and complex palette. No longer shills for something else, Lutes’ images are finally transparent. The slipperiness of tempera has enabled his signature marks to subsume—but, it’s important to note, not entirely replace—the figurative. It’ll be fascinating to see if Lutes moves forwards—or further backwards—from here.  –Claudine Isé

Claudine Isé

Claudine Isé has worked in the field of contemporary art as a writer and curator for the past decade, and currently serves as the Editor of the Art21 Blog. Claudine regularly writes for Artforum.com and Chicago magazine, and has also worked as an art critic for the Los Angeles Times. Before moving to Chicago in 2008, she worked at the Wexner Center in Columbus, OH as associate curator of exhibitions, and at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles as assistant curator of contemporary art, where she curated a number of Hammer Projects. She has Ph.D. in Film, Literature and Culture from the University of Southern California.