New York-based photographer Joshua Lutz went through hell as a kid and came out the other side to tell the tale. The fulcrum of his harrowing show, Hesitating Beauty, is his late mother, who suffered from severe depression and schizophrenia. In recontextualized archival shots and newly staged photographs, Lutz shows us what it felt like to grow up with a troubled mother. It's not a pretty picture.
In rephotographed 1970s snapshots such as The Coming Insurrection, the artist's mother is all free-flowing hair and wide smile, the picture of ebullience. But in Whitestone Bridge, her downcast eyes and sullen expression presage the storm clouds ahead. Lutz doesn't spell out exactly what happened in gory, Mommie Dearest detail. But he offers hints in staged vignettes that recall the narrative tableaux of a much more famous photographer, Gregory Crewdson. In one print, the garage door of a suburban home is open just enough to betray the eerily glowing taillights of a car, carbon monoxide billowing out into the night. The piece is called Failed Attempt.
Hangnot, Slipnot (sic) shows a noose intertwined with tree vines. Emergency, shot outside a hospital, continues a thread that's not hard to figure out. Nor is it a mystery how the young Lutz felt about his mother. The snow-covered mailbox in Devil, Devil is emblazoned with the numeral 666. That number also appears on the back of a crashed school bus. And the highway sign in Exit 17 lists the exit's number but not its destination. The text field where the location should be is an empty green void. That must be what it's like to grow up with a mentally ill parent: You can see they're leaving the road, but you have no idea where they're headed. In his ghost-haunted reverie, the photographer paints an affecting portrait of a poisoned presence and the unfathomable absence of sense, meaning and hope. It's a sad, honest, gorgeous show.
SEE IT: Hesitating Beauty is at Blue Sky Gallery, 122 NW 8th Ave., 225-0210, through Dec. 1.