Douglas Max Utter at HEDGE Gallery: Falling From the Sky of Now
Unlike most people, I first knew of Douglas Max Utter as a writer. Flipping through the pages of Angle Magazine and the storied Free Times (both now sadly defunct), I became a Doug Utter “The Writer” fan girl. As an aspiring art writer myself, I didn’t know that this kind of writing was allowed – I loved it so much I could actually eat up his words. For example, here is Utter writing about Dana Schutz in Angle back in 2004:
“Painting, painterly painting that is, can be an extravagantly inclusive mix of philosophy, step aerobics and food fight. The wide world wades onto the canvas, from shit to palm fronds, chutney and toe shoes; toddler antics combine with the vast, turbulent prehistory of the race. Such works are lumpy with personality, glazed though they may be with the pale cast of thought.”
“Such works are lumpy with personality“… I could read that phrase over and over. Very much like another favorite writer of mine, the Victorian poet George Meredith, Utter’s phrasing could be described as “delicious”. To me, this is poetry – but what I didn’t know then is that these are words wrought by a man who knows firsthand what it takes. It was only after seeing his paintings that it all made sense, finally – my “a-ha” moment. Here on the canvas, like on the page, was everything I admired – the delicious texture, the immediacy, the complexity, a nod here and there to the past, and yes, some darkness. I was hooked.
This is why seeing his current show at HEDGE Gallery is such a treat. If you, like me, could eat up Utter’s paintings for breakfast, lunch, and dinner – wading through the rooms of HEDGE is pretty much a Bacchanalian feast. More introspective than retrospective, Utter and gallerist Hilary Gent have assembled a truly thoughtful collection that are perfectly arranged. From early works to his larger than life canvases, to brand new works, it’s all there. And it is a delight. I had the great pleasure of speaking with the artist a few weeks ago, as he kindly walked me through the exhibition.
Many of the early works in the show have never been exhibited before, and they lend an entirely new dimension to an artist you might think you already know. Paintings like Union Square (1976) – document a youthful, drunken, riotous period in New York City. “I got thrown out of CBGB’s once,” he told me. While trying to wrap my brain around the level of antics that would get you bounced from that scene, I start to understand why there aren’t many paintings from this time.
Utter explains that he and a friend were living in an efficiency on East Houston Street, not far from the legendary punk venue, where he “slapped a piece of canvas up on a narrow kitchen wall around that time and made this acrylic painting, basing it on a post-it note sketch I’d made in an odd moment. It’s meant to be an imaginary vision of full-on seasonal bliss, fourteen blocks up Lafayette Avenue at Union Square.” The bumps and imperfections you can see on the surface of the canvas are actually left behind from the texture of the kitchen wall where he painted it.
But after some dark years, finding sobriety, and moving back home to Cleveland, Utter began to paint much more frequently.
“It was always a private activity for me. I didn’t take classes in school, I had a tutor for awhile, but I didn’t go to art school and I wasn’t in the art department at case. I was studying classical languages and literature. Painting was always a private world for me. I didn’t have an exhibit until I was 35, I didn’t want one, and I didn’t quite want one then, but on the other hand I did. I wanted people to see. I was suddenly doing large paintings in latex and spray paint, I was experimenting in a way that had a public dimension.”
Works like Motherhood #1 are emblematic of this period. “This is one of my favorite paintings,” Utter explained as we walked into the room. “It’s my ex-wife and daughter, Motherhood #1 1987. I had a studio in the Art Craft Building, close to 1500 square feet, and I was there for nineteen years. I began painting great big paintings, on a regular basis, and this is one of them.” The towering canvas can barely contain the mother and child, Utter pushes them right up to the boundaries of the composition – yet their spray-painted outlines softly recede into the surface. Gent thoughtfully included one of Utter’s poems from around the same time alongside the painting, En Famillie, which only reinforces the parallels between Utter’s gestures made in paint or in print:
“…the red circle of mother is
an atlas of longing
On the floor beneath my feet, a neat
red line begins beneath my speech,
goes on, the brown words that remain hang
Dryly in the room with no sweetness, barking” (1989)
In addition to using his family as subjects, Utter also occasionally uses randomly found imagery. For example, one of his paintings accepted to the legendary “May Show” at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Descent (1989) originated as a small photo clipped from the Plain Dealer of a woman collapsing after surviving a plane crash, being caught from behind by a doctor.
Utter explained that as he was painting it, “sometimes standing on a chair, I was reminded of Renaissance-era depictions of the body of Christ being gently lowered from the cross – thus the title. Everything was turning into religious imagery.”
Not that Utter is religious, he explained he’s not – but I think that he is drawn to the large-scale, performative and epic quality of Renaissance and Baroque religious paintings. Having spent time in Europe, specifically England, Utter was a frequent visitor to the great museums, such as London’s National Gallery. This is apparent in his visual knowledge of the vernacular of the Old Masters – in his work you might spy depositions, annunciations, saints meeting their end, etc.
This all culminates in my favorite work in the show, Ecco Homo, painted in 1990. As I was sitting talking to Utter, it was directly behind him on the wall, begging for me to come take a look. I was drawn to it immediately, possibly because it was oddly familiar, and when Utter explained it was based on a Bosch painting in the National Gallery, I knew which one immediately.
I too have spent time in London, including many hours in the National Gallery – and this painting is what I would call a “stunner”. And though the two may be compositionally similar, the difference in scale is notable. The Bosch is a tiny canvas, a small jewel, with tightly controlled brushwork and the kind of detail for which the Northern artists were known.
But Utter literally blows the scene up – it’s explosive – larger than life. Painted with the raw intensity and immediacy that I associate with his very best works, it’s all emotion and gesture. Pathos and fury. The bright red smears call to mind the violence of the moment. Its surface is so heavy with texture, it’s literally cracking – it feels nearly out of control – like it’s coming apart at the seams. I think to myself, this is more Anselm Kiefer than Bosch, and I remember working at the Cincinnati Art Museum with a large Kiefer painting that “shed” paint and the floor below had to be regularly swept. I wonder if Utter’s heavily textured surfaces are that fragile… All these thoughts come to mind as I stand there. And that’s why I love Utter’s paintings. They allow the viewer to do some work – you can bring what you like to the experience, because it’s all in there. All in that moment. In the end, you might learn about him, but mostly you learn about you.
“Right now is all there is, that isn’t daydream or history. The chief value of ambitious art is that it chooses to accept the most impossible of missions: to capture the energy-packed essence of the present moment. Grabbing a quark by its shorthairs couldn’t be any harder, but somehow, sometimes it happens. And art that tells us something true about who we are – how we look, what we see, how we feel about ourselves — gives us a place we can go back to, a place for identity to dance.” – Douglas Max Utter, 2006.
There are so many more paintings to explore in this exhibition, and while I spent most of my time reveling in the large-scale canvases from the 80s and 90s, I didn’t even mention the many stunning portraits, the satellite imagery, some surprising new work (including a night view of a car driving into the darkness that stopped me in my tracks), etc. that Gent and Utter have included. A publication is also in the works, to be released this fall.