Bay Arts’ “Presence and Projection”: Humanity at extremes and in intimacy

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John W. Carlson and Douglas Max Utter  explore the ability of painting, print, and drawing to create self-sustaining worlds of feeling in their joint exhibition “Presence and Projection”.

The show is ongoing at Bay Arts’ Sullivan Family Gallery, and is hosted in collaboration with HEDGE Gallery. Carlson is a painter and drawing instructor. Utter is an artist, critic, and 2013 recipient of the Cleveland Arts Prize’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

On a purely cosmetic level, Carlson and Utter’s works bear resemblances to each other. Both render the human figure primarily with white, black, gray and brown, and set it against abstract color fields. However, after viewing multiple paintings by each artist, differences in individual styles and themes become apparent.

For example, a superficial viewer might come away with the impression that Carlson’s works are more emotional than Utter’s. True, Carlson’s subjects’ states of mind are more obvious from a distance, and more immediately apparent. They gesture with their whole bodies, and their embodiment points at profound anguish. A woman floating in a white and pink void curls into the fetal position. Another female figure bows her head and scratches the back of her head as if trying to process information equally parts confusing and distressing. A third sprawls on a pink bed, clutching her chest in agony, and twisting her face into a silent groan.

Carlson’s cringing, slumping, moaning women are the centers of their painted universes. They are isolated from from any objects or scenarios which make the causes of their distress apparent. Therefore, viewers inevitably draw on their own experiences of pain to make sense of these scenes. Carlson’s figures are universal sufferers.

Carlson, John_Face

“Face,” John W. Carlson

Whereas Carlson makes the whole body the vehicle of expression, Utter’s subjects are usually shown from the chest up. The conveyance of emotion is mostly conducted through the cast of eyes, face, and head. Whereas Carlson’s subjects focus their attention outward, towards invisible but potent harms, Utter’s turn inward. The feelings on display are less dramatic than those in Carlson’s raw, bracing images, but no less important.

In a self-portrait, Utter paints himself smiling and casting down his eyes with self-effacing modesty while he holds up an earthy pair of loafers. A slim-shouldered Black woman in a white wig casts her eyes to the far right of her panel without turning her head. She knows something the viewer doesn’t, and is gently trying to direct our attention to it. It is the rare painting that captures the act of cognition, of thinking thoughts.

Consequentially, Utter’s paintings are more intimate than Carlson’s. This is appropriate. In the artists’ statement for “Presence and Projection”, Utter writes that many of the people he depicts are friends and members of his own family. At least one of the paintings on display (“Partage de Midi”) dates back to the 1980s, but the people closest to Utter have been especially important to his work in recent years. See, for example, his 2013 exhibition “Curious Things” at Survival Kit Gallery. Allegory pervaded “Curious Things”. Deer, bears, and Labrador Retrievers stood in for kin. In “Presence and Projection,” humans keep their human faces. (A giraffe, though, makes an appearance, as a giraffe.)

Utter, Douglas Max_White Wig colon Entering the Green Room

“White Wig: Entering the Green Room,” Douglas Max Utter

But this does not mean that Utter is changing from an expressionist into a realist. Even these comparatively grounded images do not aim at mimesis for its own sake. They represent particular people only indirectly. In the artist’s statement, Utter writes that his and Carlson’s work are less like photographs of people than they are reflections or shadows of them. They are meant to invoke shared human experiences—of suffering or self-reflection—and transform our relationships with those experiences.

“A drawing may become more powerful, more real, not as it approaches perfect resemblance to a person or a thing, but when it veers away from that perfection in order to answer another call…A good painting tends toward becoming not another illusion, but a mirror that looks back upon illusion from another place,” Utter writes.

The show is a must-see for both those familiar with Carlson and Utter’s work, and those new to the Northeast Ohio arts scene. The two artists demonstrate that very different things can be achieved by different people working in styles which appear similar at first glance. But their work provokes so much more than a first glance.

“Presence and Projection” runs through January 28 at Bay Arts, located at 28795 Lake Road, Bay Village. For more information, call 440-871-6543 or go to

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.