Headin' Up by Jim Lutes

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In his 2006 Kelly Creek Breakdown, Jim Lutes covers what might otherwise have been a simple, pastoral painting with a mess of color wrought in chunky, swirling brushstrokes. The title creek disappears almost completely; a fringe of mountaintops is the only clear landmark. Lutes returns to Kelly Creek for “Dumb Country,” his new show at the Valerie Carberry Gallery. But this time the abstract overlay is gone. It’s been displaced into a “boulder” of trash that sits, encased in transparent urethane, at the center of the exhibition space. On the walls around it: four towering landscapes—six-and-a-half to nearly eight feet tall—depicting views to the north, south, east, and west of the creek.

Lutes, who was born in Washington, has been a Chicagoan since the 1980s—which is also when he began painting vivid scenes of urban dissolution. He’s been identified with Chicago Imagists like Jim Nutt, but “Dumb Country” marks a departure. The four mountain scenes are straightforward and toned down compared to his recent abstractions. Neither the show’s title nor its giant ball of garbage can be called subtle; still, I like the idea of Lutes’s characteristic flourishes stripped from the paintings and packed tightly away. Like the buildup of trash in nature, that ball seems ready to explode.