Atlas of a Difficult World
Shadows and Portraits at UNM's Jonson Gallery
For better or worse, excellent art is often born out of disaster. Matthew Lutz' grandfather died following a brutal battle with lung and brain cancer, and observing this struggle had a deep effect on Lutz. Later, when he entered the MFA program at UNM to study visual art, he taught an undergraduate who fought a similar battle against metastasized breast cancer. Her fight inspired Lutz to complete his master's degree even after he personally suffered a life-altering spinal cord injury.
This series of unfortunate events led Lutz to make the decision to donate all proceeds from a year's worth of his artwork to cancer foundations. The Shadows half of his current MFA thesis show at UNM's Jonson Gallery is the result of this project.
Despite the traumatic inspiration behind this show, Shadows consists of work that's surprisingly serene. Based on the dappled patterns created by sunlight filtering through the leaves and limbs of trees, most of these oil on canvas paintings have an ethereal, calming quality. Together, they offer a powerful examination of the fragility of life and memory.
A trio of large-scale paintings in the same room almost looks like a series of underwater scenes. The bright blue bifurcated "Redeemer," in particular, looks like it was painted under the surface of a swimming pool. It contains two dark slits that look something like handles on a sliding glass door opening into this watery underworld. Facing each other across the room, "Borealis in June," an orange construction with a small superimposed rectangular element, and the simple reddish "Summer's Autumn" seem to present alternate depictions of the same pure solitary place.
All of the work in this half of the show offers a sense of both transience and movement. Some of these paintings almost look like video screens. I wanted to press the play button to set the things in motion.
The other half of Lutz' show, Portraits, addresses similar themes from utterly different angles. Six of the seven paintings in this half are named after people, although most don't appear to be portraits in any conventional sense. All of these paintings have an antique quality. Most include inset boxes filled with words and containing little knickknacks presented like mementos from lost friends or lovers.
In "George," for example, Lutz depicts a woman in a white scarf and vintage clothing. She's surrounded by gibberish script, three leaping elk and a series of white marks resembling cigarette burns. The inset box contains an instrument that looks something like metal forceps. Lavender art nouveau swirls ornament the outer border of the image.
Just staring at this beautiful mysterious thing, with its masculine name and feminine visage, you have no concept of what these different elements represent, yet the combination feels personal. That's partly why these pieces are so attractive. They're infused with a private meaning that you can feel even if you can't rationally comprehend what the various aspects signify.
One of my favorite pieces in this half of the show is "Micah (180º)." Painted on a long panel with an edge of wide notches, this piece depicts a panorama with two sets of converging train tracks. Like much of Lutz' work in this show, "Micah (180º)" presents a peaceful scene, yet it's somewhat alarming to note that if two trains rolled down these tracks they would collide right at the point where the viewer stands.
A painting titled "Cell No. 1," which is grouped with Portraits, serves as a kind of bridge between the two halves. Composed of abstract purple, black, red and yellow blotches, the image looks like a fading memory in the final moments before it slips into oblivion.
In the end, both Shadows and Portraits are varied aesthetic depictions of the human drive to clasp on to life and memory. As such, this show doesn't suffer from the easy cynicism and bleakness contaminating so much contemporary art. The inspiration behind this show might be disease, injury and death, but Lutz leaves the viewer with strength, hope and an affirmation of the noble human qualities required to survive in a difficult world.
Shadows and Portraits, an MFA thesis exhibit featuring work by Matthew Lutz, runs through August 19 at UNM's Jonson Gallery (1909 Las Lomas NE). Tuesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. 277-4967.