A rarely seen collection of Robert Lostutter’s watercolors, dated 1968 – 1973, are on view at Corbett vs. Dempsey. They will be for some a sharp departure in Lostutter’s oeuvre, considering he is far better known for his images of male figure sheathed in masks made of bird feathers.
I had to see this show in order to satisfy my juvenile curiosity about the pre-homoerotic Lostutter, and fantasized that in seeing it I would be able to smartly delineate the transition in his work. I would be able to tell, I supposed, exactly when Lostutter turned his back on the exaggerated form of the emotionally detached female subjects of the earliest work and ushered in the arrival of the fierce, clandestine, and virile male figures that would populate his work forever thereafter.
It turned out not to be so sudden. In many of the works during this time, men and women inhabit the same surreal space, facing off amidst geometric zaps and zig-zags. The bodies share not only the space, but also a similar predilection for corsetry and what looks like highly refined, custom S&M wear. Their bodies are also rendered akin, like personalized sensory homunculi, with each the most crucial sexual elements bulging and ballooning with proportional importance according to the artist. In the ladies, elephantine thighs protrude from giant granny panties tightly clinging to barely concealed pudenda. (That’s right, I said “pudenda”). In the men, sturdy, block-like torsos are supported on huge square asses and trunk-like legs, nipples featured prominently and treated occasionally with garments that further accentuate their central role. Now, this might be where I go too far in acting like I see Lostutter’s transition on paper as a time-line mirror of his transition in real life, but I am pretty sure I can parse in many of the works the way in which the male figures begin to assert their dominance. In 1969 for example, a female figure, shown in profile, sports a dog’s elongated face as a protrusion from the groin area through her skirt. But by 1970, who’s wearing the strap-on dog? Big Daddy, that’s who. (Okay, I’ll quit with that, but it does bear examination if you’re interested in such things.) From that year forward, the fecund, monumental females are encroached upon by men with jutting chins in trench coats, mostly tucked subserviently into the scene- emerging from the edge of the picture or hiding behind curtains and camouflaged by graphic elements. This goes on for a few years until, at the turn of the 1970’s, Lostutter dispenses with the gals altogether and trains his vision on more and more intense psychological renderings of vulnerable bird-men.
While not officially a member of the “Hairy Who?” group of Chicago artists, Lostutter existed on the fringe of all the Imagists’ sub-groups and is often mentioned in the same breath. Like them, he eschewed prevailing trends in New York and focused on a tightly rendered, highly illustrated surrealist vision of the figure in space. His work has been remarkably consistent in its passion for precision over the years, even as his figures have softened and relaxed. In these early works, his expert handling of the watercolor medium is shown off in both broad fields of delicately managed color as well as areas where it is fit within tightly knit abstract elements and illustrative details. These flower petals and energetic zig-zags found in the early works would later metamorphose into the brilliant feathers adorning the artist’s more recent work.
This early body of work will be a welcome respite from the obsessive detail that emerges in the work as the years go by (and as fewer bristles remain on Lostutter’s paintbrush, seemingly). If you find some of the more recent work cloying in it’s florid detail and color, the broads in these early watercolors will give you an opportunity to see a more tortured and terse version of the artist’s fetishistic renderings.