Getting the Paint to Talk Back: Douglas Max Utter

Self-Portrait as a Young Man, mixed paint media on canvas


Douglas Max Utter’s house on the hillside above Euclid Avenue in East Cleveland is filled with his steady output of painting and ideas. In room after room, the walls are hung with his own work. “I’ve made it a kind of museum of myself,” he says, in a way that is perhaps slightly bemused, but also frankly true. There are his first several paintings on canvas, including a portrait of his mom, done when he was eleven years old. There are examples from throughout the decades since. Family members are his dominant subjects, and family heritage, too, in the form of landscapes: some from the Iowa town where his parents got married, some from other places they visited. There’s a building in Aspen, painted in 1965 when he was fourteen. There’s a self portrait from a few years later, at age twenty. There are paintings done from newspaper photos of strangers, as well. Classical composition abounds.

But more than a museum, it’s a work in progress—the evolving result of his continual exploration of the possibility of paint. Most of the work, especially since 1985, is based on photographs, both of his family and taken from newspapers. Perhaps for as long as photography has existed, painters have used photos as source material. Utter observes, “Francis Bacon and Edgar Degas both used photographs in their work. They were trying to be as universal as possible. That is not what I am trying to do. For me a photo is a report on intimacy.”

Utter is well committed to the idea that by pushing paint around, an artist can discover something about the subject, or about himself, and connect or re-connect to it. In April, HEDGE Gallery opens a new show of his work, delving into this ongoing pursuit. In Falling from the Sky of Now, gallerist Hilary Gent will juxtapose the artist’s new paintings with some of his most prominent works since the 1970s, as well as never-before-seen paintings, drawings and prints. The title of the show comes from Utter’s poem, “Inset (Map of the Past),” which deals with the deaths of his father and grandfather. It’s not a retrospective, Gent says, but a reflection on “the story of how Douglas Max Utter evolved into the artist he is today.”

This is as good a time as any to note that it would be hard to overstate the mark he has made on art in Cleveland. Utter has been painting and exhibiting prolifically for more than thirty years, with milestone achievements like having won Best in Show at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s May Show in 1987 (with O What Shall I Hang on the Chamber Walls, a spray paint and latex composition based on a newspaper photo, emotionally motivated by the death of his father). He also won multiple fellowships from both the Ohio Arts Council and Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, and in 2013, the Cleveland Art Prize Lifetime Achievement Award. In between there were more than forty solo exhibitions, especially at William Busta Gallery, but also at Zygote Press, Artists Archives of the Western Reserve (where his work is archived), the beloved and locally legendary Dead Horse Gallery (where Hilary Gent first saw his work, in 2004), and in New York and Germany.

Ratman, spray paint and latex paint on Arches, 65” X 45”, 1986

Further, we have to acknowledge that Doug Utter is a writer, too, and has contributed steadily to just about every publication that ever took Cleveland art seriously, at least in his lifetime. Besides having written for Dialogue, The Free Times and Scene, he was editor of the regional magazine ArteFakt, and one of the founders of Angle. And he’s a regular contributor to CAN Journal.

Born in 1950 in Cleveland, he traveled to Australia by ship as a toddler with his parents so that his father could pursue biochemistry research there. He spent another chunk of his childhood in and around Oxford, England, returning to Cleveland in the early ’60s. He studied at Case Western Reserve University in the mid-’70s, moved to New York in 1976, crossed the country in a van in 1979, and entered alcohol rehab in 1980. A few months later that year, his father died of an undiagnosed heart condition. He had been painting since childhood, but in these years—difficult ones, to be sure—he turned to it in a more serious way. Between 1982 and 1990, the artist got married, fathered two children, won that May Show prize, and got divorced. His mother died of leukemia in 2000.

Much of that history has been explored in his work, especially in the last decade or so, and all of it took place in the era of easy consumer access to photography, which means it was documented in photos. As a painter, Utter finds in them classical composition of figures, and often a relationship with the subject. The role of paint seems to be a way to commune with what is captured in them: to understand, to come to terms with events, to muse on questions neither asked nor answered while his parents—especially his father—were alive. The fluidity and behavior of paint, as it flows and spreads, accumulates and bleeds, becomes a conversational partner in the processing of relationships, as well as ideas and memories, and places that make him who he is. It’s not one-way communication.

Photo Booth, 2008

“It’s trying to get the paint to talk back to you,” he says. “You’re playing with colors and textures, and suddenly there is something you didn’t put there, like having an imaginary friend. It’s a way of accessing the subconscious. If you have something to say of your mother, you are going to end up saying it whether you paint a flower or something else. The subject is just a way of getting started.”

Whether he starts a painting with a family photo or one clipped from a newspaper, he says whatever comes from the dialogue, the photo is not the point. In fact, he means to start from a place beyond the idea of having a point, to see what the paint—or the act of painting—has to say.

That dialogue includes a range of techniques that have become hallmarks of his work. A lot of his figures begin as black pastels, shaded and blurred by rubbing, followed and surrounded by layers of other stuff. Utter uses “whatever is there,” taking what he calls a “pragmatic approach to what is often a fussy, ceremonial process.” In some works, Latex house paint is poured into puddles as thick as pie crust, which crackle when they dry like mud flats in drought. Some have the hazy edge of aerosol, with the other side of the sprayed field cut sharp by a brush stroke or a rolled line of latex over the top. There are gritty smears of tar, and sometimes the practice of pouring mineral spirits over the surface, which can run with a tint of the color beneath, slightly dissolved, bleeding, or maybe more like crying. Some paintings, or parts of them, are covered with shellac, which hardens and forms a sepia crystal between the present and the memory. The late Frank Green, writing in 2002 for Art in America, saw those drips and glazed quality as a window on something else: “If the trails of dripping tar and shellac that run down the canvas suggest rain, they also evoke the leakage of the physical world into the metaphysical realm that this artist explores so intensely in his figurative work.”

Utter has said that family is the thing that that holds his painting practice together, but it also seems true that the act of painting is what keeps his life on track.

“Painting establishes a coherence to my life, a realm of time existing outside the way I normally think of myself and my life. It is an important kind of meditation, if you will, and I didn’t realize that until fairly recently. Once you start painting it is either over in a second, or you paint for hours, and time expands and collapses into the work. The time I spend painting is different from any other time I spend on the planet.”

Falling from the Sky of Now opens April 19 and will be on view through May 31 at HEDGE Gallery.