Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Jim Lutes at Valerie Carberry

In 1917, after two decades in the insane asylum, Ralph Albert Blakelock (1847-1919) was released to spend his final months painting more of the moody, moonlit landscapes that were then selling for record-breaking prices. Journalism had made the crazy artist a celebrity, but his kind of painting was also respected by critics, one of whom wrote: “He is practically alone in the nervous vibration of his touch, that snaps and sparkles like an electric current." Thirty years later, a critic connected him with the Abstract Expressionist pioneers who valued “experience over perfection, vitality over finish, the unknown over the known.” And 95 years later, in an art world where eccentric visions are the norm, SAIC professor Jim Lutes is once again painting moody landscapes which, as the press release notes, have his “signature calligraphic gestures.” Those who saw his 2009 retrospective at the Renaissance Society might well be surprised. Until now, his career has moved back and forth between abstract expression and spectral, sketchy, flabby figuration. But the four wall-size landscapes now showing in Valerie Carberry are far too picturesque to be considered contemporary, which is not to say he hasn’t tried to bring them up to date. His paintings are still recognizably twenty-first century, with space that feels flat, objects that are pixelated and little concern for Baroque luminosity or realistic textures. They are accompanied by a boulder sized, clear urethane bag stuffed with brightly colored trash, in a strategic nod to Pop and conceptual art. Unless marked “work of art”, the janitorial staff would probably carry it off to the dumpster.

But still, each huge image has given this viewer the overwhelming and uncomfortable feeling of standing smack in the middle of Kelly Creek, Idaho, confronted by impenetrable walls of boulders, encompassed by dark, dangling foliage, with no apparent pathway to escape this dark, remote valley in the Bitterroot Mountains. The Impressionists shared their pleasure with the great outdoors, Blakelock shared his wonder at its mystery, and Lutes shares his anxiety with what he calls the “Dumb Country”. His views are as dramatic, convincing and entertaining as scenes from Jon Boorman’s violent film Deliverance. But so are many of the professionally painted backdrops in the display cases at the Field Museum. What’s missing in all of them is the aesthetic rapture that Blakelock’s tradition of romantic landscape was able to deliver. Those paintings made you want to stare into them for as long as possible. Lutes’ paintings make you want to run back to the car before night falls.