Charles Lutz
C24 Gallery // January 17-March 1

The jaw-dropping prices many contemporary artists command artists command at auction can induce profound anxiety over art and aesthetics, especially since figures such as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Richard Prince churn out work that relies heavily on outsourced labor, industrial fabrication, and copyright infringement, The proverbial romantic creative genius type has taken a beating over the past several decades by those who, with a modernized Midas touch, are making serious bank.

            In “Ends and Means,” Lutz confronts an art market focused on high performers. Though well rehearsed in both painterly technique and strategies of appropriation-he was once employed by Koon’s studio-Lutz doesn’t seem interested in critiquing class or wealth. In fact, his meticulously finished work has a tenacious “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” quality. Whether the artist is critical or complicit, however, is less relevant than his fascinating exploration of the creation of value, with 40- plus works drawing numerous parallels between contemporary artists revered and reviled for undermining conventions, and the machinations of modern banking, whose participants sometimes act above the law.
Lutz divides a single 1950s newswire photograph across four hyper realistic paintings, Gold III through VI, all 2012, that depict stacks of gold bars at a federal reserve bank. A blend of 23-karat gold and enamel paint produces a satiny surface on the canvases, which nod to Andy Warhol’s “vulgar” paintings of dollar bills. The bars allude to a hoarding mentality associated with the superrich, who are the subjects of six silkscreen paintings, including Portrait of Gentlemen I through VI, based on digitally collaged faces scanned from Wall Street Journal hedcuts (which, not coincidentally, resemble the portraiture on U.S. currency). The fractured compositions of these political and business leaders, however, discourage identification. Obfuscation and prestige, it seems, are two sides of the same elite coin.

            The face of Alan Greenspan in a 12-foot-tall painting looms large among pictures of vintage stock tickers, auction-house price lists, and celebrity auctioneers, as well as stainless-steel casts of balaclavas od the sort favored by holdup men. The economist’s closed eyes and hand-covered mouth perfectly express an “Oh, shit” moment, evoking the recognition of the damage that stockbrokers, executives, and emblezzlers have wrought on the global economy, worse than that created by bank robbers, whose hand-scribbled notes containing directives, such as “Do What I Say” and “I Don’t Want to Hurt You,” he reproduces against shimmering colored backgrounds.

            For the best works in the show, Lutz stretches canvas currency bags from American banks across panels and arranges them in tight configurations of 6 to 12 pieces. Marked with the names of financial institutions in Denver, Chicago, and Indianapolis, these readymade bags are scuffed and stained, looking perhaps like abstract paintings. Visually resembling Robert Rauschenberg’s cardboard construction from the early 1970’s, works such as East End Trust and Corpus Christi exacerbate tensions between original and homage by changing the focus from formal experimentation to commentary- about a misguided or possibly corrupt social sphere invested in luxury goods. If art is whatever you can get away with, as Warhol once said, do contemporary artists pull off the ultimate heist?

-Christopher Howard