Joshua Lutz, Mind the Gap @ClampArt

JTF (just the facts): A total of 20 black and white and color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the front gallery space. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made in 2017. The prints are available in three sizes: 14×11 inches (in editions of 5), 24×20 inches (in editions of 5), and 40×30 inches (in editions of 5). There are 8 prints in the large size, 7 prints in the medium size, and 5 prints in the small size on view. (Installation shots below.)

A monograph of this body of work was recently published by Schilt Publishing (here). Hardcover, 160 pages, with 65 black and white and color images. Includes multiple texts by the artist. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: In the year and a half since Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, artists have consistently struggled with how to respond to the destabilizing societal transformations he has brought with him. Many have opted to explore outright protest and anger, using resistance as a central theme and employing caricature and parody of Trump himself (and his supporters) as ways to actively grapple with the current situation. Others have turned away from the Trump persona and focused on how his nationalist policies are deliberately changing the fabric of the nation, using the faces and stories of minorities, immigrants, and other marginalized groups as the starting point for their art.

But one of the hardest parts of the larger Trump phenomenon to address artistically has been the subtle (and not so subtle) undermining of truth. While outright lies have largely led to easily visualized responses, it’s our new environment of constant anxiety, polarization, mistrust, and instability that is much harder to capture with nuance. When the noise overcomes the signal, and especially when it is done on purpose, we are left frustrated and confused by the inability of facts to generate agreement, the never ending stream of distractions and misunderstandings becoming a kind of debilitating societal madness, where truth and fiction can never regain balance.

Of all the artistic mediums, photography is the best positioned to thoughtfully wrestle with this complex and multifaceted definition of truth – a photograph has always been one person’s version of reality, and depending how we judge a photographer’s choices (in everything from subject and framing to what’s made central and what’s left out), we realize that a whole range of variations, outcomes, and perspectives are potentially possible. Joshua Lutz’ new body of work Mind the Gap (seen in both this gallery show and a concurrently published photobook of the same name) embraces these inherent contradictions found in photography and leverages them into a smart series of images that attempts to locate this uncertain place in which we are now living.

The picture placed on the cover of the book is in many ways a perfect visual metaphor for our current mindset. The house of cards has long been used a symbol of the fragile posing as the stout, a structure that looks formidable but can be toppled with the smallest breath of wind. In Lutz’ version, the tower is made from cards adorned with nude pinups, our attention to the collapse of the house distracted by the titillating naked bodies. Its message about our present is clear – even though we know this house is sham, we’re happy to look at the sexy images while it tumbles down around us.

Many of the images in the series wilfully encourage alternate interpretations and possible explanations, with Lutz’ compositional choices knowingly enhancing the state of confusion. One photograph captures a hand stuck into the open mouth of a bearded man, but the context is unknown. Is he screaming? Or being choked? Or being punched in the mouth? Is the hand his or someone else’s? Is it a gentle gesture or something more aggressive? We can’t know for sure, and that uncertainty lies at the root of Lutz’ approach. Another image finds a firefighter dangling from a wire outside an apartment block. Again, we can’t quite make out the story. Where is the fire? Why is he hanging there so precariously? Who placed the baby stroller underneath him? Is it supposed to catch him if he falls? Is this scene comic or scary? Is it even real or was it faked in some manner? Looking at images like these is an exercise in getting lost in our own convoluted questions and conclusions, the surreal setups making it impossible for us to distinguish reality from absurdity.

After wrong footing us so many times, Lutz then happily offers a range of overly easy answers. A darkened doorway beckons a stumbling man with “Inspirational Videos”, with a cluster of comforting angels nearby. A still life of dated board games (Go to the Head of the Class and The Game of Life) places the LUCK cards where we can reach them. Even a flashing electric roadside sign seems to deliver an inconclusive salve, its “Conscious Found” message both perplexing and somehow comforting.

Other works seem to address the new political and social realities more directly. A tapestry of Octavian shows the Roman emperor surrounded by grasping sycophants. Patriotism is given a sexed up face, with a come hither glance from a young woman in a stars and stripes outfit. A quaint American home with Halloween decorations hosts machine guns and men in army fatigues in the front yard. A used-clothing donation bin is painted to look like a cosy (but fake) house. And African-American men are either exhausted (waiting with travel luggage near a fancy office park) or quizzically silent (standing ready to tell us something, the paper on which the message should be written somehow blank).

These and other scenes are enough to make us crazy, and the allusions to mental illness (scars from cutting, bloody razor blades, etc.) are all too convenient to be coincidence. And the many resonant details here and there fill in the tableaux of contemporary anxiety Lutz is constructing – the Elect Jesus brand mineral water, the virtual reality porn, the overturned wheelchair, the ankle monitor on the leg of a young woman, the Pray for Orlando exultation from the monument showroom, the dump truck disgorging a heap of dirt. Even Lutz’ alternating use of black and white and color imagery keeps us off balance. And between the smooth white coffin sitting in an open hearse and the apocalyptic pile of dead frogs, we can see what’s coming.

Lutz’ brand of photography forces us to question everything we might see – no assumptions can be taken for granted. Even a seemingly standard family portrait of white parents and kids standing in their swimsuits at some kind of splashing indoor pool fails to resolve. In our now divided nation, these people now stand on one side or the other, they are “we” or “them”, and their appraising looks don’t give us any clues. Maybe they are neo-Nazis or socialists or Trump supporters or Trump despisers or some other handy label or stereotype, and in the separated me first world Trump has created, we now wonder about these things. Lutz has simply made pictures that document this creeping (and ultimately wearying) sense of distrust.

In the end, Mind the Gap, in both its gallery and photobook forms, is satisfyingly uncomfortable. While many photographers have examined the recent exhaustion of the American populace, Lutz instead steps right into the center of the friction, where confusion and misdirection currently reign. We can’t even be certain which if any of these images Lutz has staged or manipulated, so our documentary foundation is decidedly shaky. And thus we apply our own frameworks and narratives to these scenes, making sense of them from the safety of our own thought bubbles. These are quietly sophisticated photographs designed for a truth-challenged world, and the grim trap that they lay is a seductively apt reflection of our current mode of thinking.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced as follows. The 14×11 prints start at $2000, the 24×20 prints start at $3000, and the 40×30 prints start at $4000, all in rising editions. Lutz work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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