Tenderness Abounds: Douglas Max Utter’s Recent Exhibition at HEDGE
Douglas Max Utter’s second major solo exhibition at HEDGE Gallery (Family Life & Other Fancies, on view July 19 – September 1, 2023), reflected the glow of a fire just put to bed, after many long conversations. This sense of yearning—for childhood innocence and later, life unchained—governs an abundance of the artist’s pictures. In Doug’s work, it seems difficult to pinpoint the tick, the clock, or actual time, lodged as so many of these canvases feel between past, present, and what is still to come. But time spent, as I understand it, is exactly the underlayer here, the underpainting, and perhaps exactly the point.
Featuring about a dozen paintings created between 1984 and the early 1990s alongside an impressive sequence of more recent works painted primarily after 2016 (following the birth of the artist’s grandchildren), this exhibition nods mightily to the continuity that threads Doug’s works into his cohesive, ongoing career as one of Cleveland’s most beloved painters. Joining the roster of HEDGE in 2015, after decades of representation with Bill Busta (1989 – 2015), four solo shows in as many years at Dead Horse Gallery (2001 – 2004), as well as solo and two-person shows in New York City during the 1990s (notably, for example, at the Interchurch Center on Riverside Drive), Doug’s visual language is complex in its clarity—a grace akin to his writing, I might add, for which he is equally cherished. Presenting more than a dozen works painted just this year, Doug continues to source imagery from his own photographs, from news media and magazines and Old Master paintings, but perhaps most of all, the artist mines the intersections of his life—the place we either come crashing to a halt, or assume calm, silent pause. The artist’s family, perhaps the most constant cosmic body in his orbit, draws rhythmically in and out of focus throughout the exhibition, a sort of waxing and waning that occurs on a slighter scale within individual canvases too, where softly rounded, hazy forms often adjoin crisp, attenuated lines, as if announcing the depth and dimensionality of daily life.
In Family Life & Other Fancies, quietly dark street scenes documenting the loneliness of our post-pandemic era offset the predominantly figurative works on view. As Doug described in the exhibition’s accompanying text, “East Cleveland [where the artist lives and works] is not anyone’s idea of Eden, but I remain fascinated by the depth and texture of its unique urban beauty.” In such sizeable works as Night on North Taylor (2023) or such intimate, small-scale ones as Nocture with Yellow Car (2023), figures remain absent, although their presence—and even our presence—feels unmistakable, quietly and paradoxically implied through sheer nonappearance. These pictures anchor the sound of hearing the phone ring at 10pm on a lonesome, solitary Saturday night, with the voice of a friend at the other end of the line. In these urban love letters, lamppost lights assume a celestial role, like the sun or moon cutting through darkness.
Though these street scenes do not exactly classify as landscapes, they seem in some way to hark back to the artist’s earliest forays into art. As a boy spending a year in Oxford, England with his family, Doug came to painting primarily through landscape, later eclipsed by his intensive work with the figure, especially in Neo-Expressionist terms. In between, during years Doug spent in New York City in the later 1970s, he developed his first mature style, “characterized by a broad color palette and multiple figures occupying vast spaces,” as the late and treasured Cleveland artist and writer Dan Tranberg described in 2003. Ever perceptive, Tranberg describes how in these early works of the 1970s, Doug appeared “to ponder whether intimate bonds between people are possible, and if not, what the ramifications are of a world in which individuals coexist but remain unconnected.” As Dan concedes, though, this line of questioning would grow arguably less urgent in the next decade, bringing as it did for Doug quakes and shifts of joy, sadness, and remarkable change.
As it turns out, 1984 in particular was a watershed year for the artist. The artist’s son Christopher was born, followed quickly by his daughter Elizabeth in 1985. Four years earlier, in 1980, his father, a renowned biochemist, passed away. Around that time, the artist quit drinking, “for good,” as the saying goes. And in 1982, Doug married fiber artist and sculptor Loren Hyler. These years were rich with productivity and a “breakthrough” as he calls it, less something he experienced as a creative [read: solo] genius, and more so, by the artist’s own admission, through his role as a translator, interpreter, conduit, or sponge of sorts, soaking up the literary, artistic, and familial influences around him.
And so it was that many of the figures on view at HEDGE this summer felt like gatekeepers to Doug’s world, or perhaps guardians of their own—or even ours. Six of seven canvases in the first gallery depicting faces and torsos in large format portray persons embracing, holding children, protecting one another fiercely, creating space, as it were—as if holding up and pushing out the actual support of the canvas or frame. A certain compactness and self-containment operate here, buoying the archetypal modernist charge of an essentially flat picture plane. French avant-garde painter Georges Rouault comes to mind, especially the ways Rouault interlaced deeply religious themes with the idioms of modern art, compressing these into that far-away, so-close aesthetic transparency of something akin to stain glass windows—an approach to composition for which Rouault was celebrated, and which Doug harnesses as well.
In True Love – Night Clouds (2011 – 2022), for example, two figures lock lips. They embrace as a flurry of hands form a nest or an armament of sorts around them—like a murmuration of starlings—forms floating above bands of color—black, red currant, warm rose, teal, cantaloupe, swampy yellow. The female figure’s chest shifts, folding out like a filmic flip book, or a photo jostled at the exact snap of the shutter closing; a web of cracks throughout the center of the canvas announces the folds of time: wrinkles, creases, the gullies and channels through which we flow. As elsewhere in the exhibition and throughout Doug’s oeuvre, it is exceedingly difficult to lock eyes with “the painted,” with those whom the artist pursues in earnest as his subjects.
This is where, then, that sense of longing enters. Tenderness abounds in so many of Douglas Max Utter’s pictures. Clasping one another, nestled figures, awkward and warm, both ignore and indulge one another. This isn’t our family we see, and to some degree, it seems not even Doug’s any longer; through the act of painting, he’s set his family free from the constraints of memory, of time passed on, of time to come, and significantly, of what family actually looks like. If only we could each muster that kind of gentleness, less a grand gesture than a sensitive, subtle one.
In Doug’s pictures, much feels unclear. And I mean this as a compliment. This indistinctness, so typical of the artist’s quintessential works, implores the viewer to look more closely. It creates gravitational pull between the viewer and the viewed, tension that leans both in and out. In Doug’s work, the search for his subject’s eyes creates an extremely original take on the concept of “the gaze,” but Doug isn’t painting what he sees, not exactly anyway, nor is he overtly concerned with painting one’s eyes. As other writers have articulated elsewhere, in more eloquent terms than I at present, Doug is painting his subject’s essence. The comfort and vastness of such a search—of capturing someone as who they are, of painting something finite in its temporal imperfection—appears to define Doug’s approach to the canvas. And it seems to be the artist’s salve. “My life,” as Doug explains, “is always reflected in my painting.” Vulnerable yet not excessively fragile, and earthbound without ever abandoning the dreaminess of this here life, Doug paints closeness through distance. In a small, brilliantly complex painting titled Night Drive (2023), for example, we are faced with the expanse of all that is in front of us, and all that is behind, neither of which we can see particularly clearly, and certainly not in one glance. But the searching stare Doug presents herein—I imagine he may adopt just such a view in his own approach to work in the studio some days—that painting, for Doug, might not be altogether different than looking back, so we can see where we are, and where to go from here.
 Dan Tranberg, Douglas Max Utter, RETROSPECTIVE(Cleveland, OH: Angle Publishing, 2003): 10.
 See for example, essays by Marianne Berardi, William Busta, and Christopher L. Richards, as well as Douglas Max Utter’s poems, in douglas max utter, in search of a new mind (Cleveland, OH: HEDGE art gallery; ART neo): 2019. This fifty page catalog includes excellent reproductions of the artist’s key works, as well as an excellent timeline outlining the development of the artist’s personal and professional life.