Elleanthus I, 2002
Graphite on paper
8 1/2 X 8 1/2 inches
October 18—November 16, 2002
Fastidiousness in the pursuit of obsession is no vice. It’s only a harmless cliché that the best way to convey pictorial intensity in paint is through a lot of broad activity–thick paint, large gestures, big scale, and a sense of velocity and physical immediacy evoked by palpable brushstrokes and the rampant evidence of temporal process. That’s fine and good, but what happens when you can communicate as much or more intensity in an amazingly controlled and intimate manner, where matters of the deepest import play out in inches rather than in yards? Robert Lostutter is a superb practitioner of the quiet fire, an artist who with extraordinary subtlety and a determined tautness pulls us into a dank and hothouse world where desire is alternately enhanced and exposed. His exquisitely beautiful male heads, compelling combinant forms of man and bird and/or plant, are Audubon for adults, ravishing images that take us face to face into the preening processes of sex, caressing the always ready to kick-start engine of exotica/erotica.
Robert Lostutter actually sometimes does employ a watercolor brush that only has one hair. (Less than one hair would be a stick, no?) A one-hair brush is a statement in itself, an explicit hunkering down to the absolute core of how pigment gets transferred onto a surface, painting and line as one. It can provide as hypersensitive a raiment as nature does itself, a scrupulous adornment of detail, an atomization of being that bespeaks a kind of discipline and commitment that is intriguing to witness. Lostutter is meticulous because so much seems at stake here, the optical credibility of his hybrid men requires a punctiliousness that seems almost more than art can bear. One of the most interesting things about this exhibition is that in it for the first time Lostutter allows us a close look at his generative process, and we can reconstruct some of the steps he takes to get from idea to image. He begins with drawing, with rather realistic pencil portraits of himself or other male heads. And then comes a sequencing of critical anatomical distortions, the exaggeration in scale or articulation of the nose, mouth, and ears (all facial orifices), turning the male head into some heightened thing, engorged into an eerie attentiveness. Then the plumage; hair becomes feathers or leaves, usually tightly cropped to their tumescent heads, brightly colored and textured. The face too often comes in for a color banding, a saturation with tone that seems fully natural in pigmentation. Lostutter too has learned a great deal about birds along the way, and his work reflects very sophisticated avian knowledge. (The color studies that Lostutter shows here are so indicative of his vision—observing how he makes 10 or 20 different tiny samples of almost indistinguishable tones of, say, violet, seeking what he feels is the absolute correct shade for his needs, reflects a focus that is painstaking to the nth degree.)
In nature, this kind of highly expressive facial and body adornment evolved to fulfill several extremely important biological functions. The first of these is sex—highly patterned and pungently toned plumage is sported to attract a partner and signify sexual availability. There are times in the life cycle of birds—and it is almost always this time in Lostutter’s work—when the entire organism is focused on coupling to the exclusion of all else, the inner compulsion toward sex clearly manifested on the exterior ornamentation of the animal. Related to this preoccupation is the more predatory drive to protect one’s turf from potential interlopers, to signify power and authority through carriage and display. Lostutter’s tightly described figures seem to hover in this erotic/aggressive zone, with the dichotomies offered—pleasure/pain, attraction/repulsion, control/abandon, beauty/savagery—perfectly limned. While humans have found other means to manifest these functions, no small charge of Lostutter’s work is how clearly his hybridized figures mimic our own processes of signaling our desires to and for one another. He offers here our coded cultural and sociological body language now overtly rendered upon these ornithological cousins of ours, desire made conspicuous and visible.
His images of plants and flowers strike a similar note. Flowers too must find a way to reproduce, and Lostutter’s highly focused examination of them accentuates their anatomical analogue to human sexuality. Here as well he offers a heightening, a quickening of tempo, a sudden discovery of the erotic where one may not have sought it. But Lostutter’s work is not really about sex, at least not about how it is realized in some kind of consummating intercourse; his concerns are more linked to that sense of an intensification of being that often accompanies (or slightly precedes) sex. That intensification can be as much visual as physical, tied to all the senses,
“If men could be birds, how evil they might be.” It has been more than ten years since I noted that about Lostutter’s work; the word ‘evil’ seems imprecise, an effort to characterize tersely something that was very complex. There is, however, a kind of transubstantiation in Lostutter’s highly skilled images, a transference of one schematic onto another. Our animal nature is part of us, and it is a commonplace to note that it is always there, bubbling just beneath the surface. In Lostutter’s work that nature—sexual, predatory, struggling to survive–makes the journey from beneath to above, from repressed psychosis to external plumage. To call that nature ‘evil’ would be to demonize ourselves for being human—what Lostutter’s work invites is a way to see aspects of ourselves anew. This is what is finally so wonderful about the tightly realized menagerie of Lostutter’s figures—they are simultaneously beautiful, frightening, and true.
Written by James Yood