The paintings of Tom Uttech immediately bring me back to my early adolescence. Back then I almost lived at the library. Good old Llewelyn Library in Bay View was the perfect antidote to sharing a room with a younger sister and an older brother right next door, not to mention the other two siblings downstairs, with the TV always on and a squabble in the making.
One of my favorite discoveries at the library was the work of Ivan Biliban, an early 19th Century illustrator of Russian folktales. Biliban’s intricate and gorgeously-colored pictures graced the books of the fairytales known as The Russian Wonder Tales. They portrayed princesses in wild, folkloric, pre-hippy dresses romping in the forest or being chased by Baba Yagas flying through the trees in a wooden barrel instead of the familiar broom. The actual story wasn’t as important as the portrayal of the forest, the trees, the animals, all the visual richness. You can almost smell the wet leaves, the moss, the evergreens.
Uttech creates a similar kind of wonderland. He was born in Merrill, WI, at the southern edge of the North Woods, in 1942, and his paintings capture the feel of such places. He studied at Layton School of Art in Milwaukee, and received an M.F.A. from the University of Cincinnati, and taught at UW-Milwaukee for about three decades. His work has been shown internationally and can be found in the collections of museums and private collectors all over the world. He is certainly one of the state’s ranking artists.
In an interview for Milwaukee Magazine in 2004, Uttech was asked if his paintings depict an actual place. Though they certainly evoke nature and the Boundary Waters in Canada where Uttech has been going for years, photographing, drawing and collecting ideas and images, these paintings aren’t naturalistic. The woods, the foliage, the animals don’t all exist simultaneously in the real world. This is a place where he would like to be,
The viewer of a Uttech painting enters this natural paradise that seems “realistic” but is actually magical. Impossibly deep space with super saturated colors of sunset or dawn overflow with birds and animals peeking out from trees or with a shamanistic great black bear eyeing the viewer with an expression of “OK buddy now you’re on my turf.”
There are no people in Uttech’s landscape. It calls to mind Satre’s line that “hell is other people.” The absence of humans accentuates the acute sense of place in his paintings.
Tom Uttech, WIDIGENDAA (978), Oil on Linen, 43 x 59″
One of the larger canvases in the current show, entitled “Widigandaa,” is filled with hundreds of birds, the sky is thick with all kinds of them. One that stands out is the yellow-tipped, red-wing blackbird, a favorite from his childhood, Uttech says. In his youth, he wanted to be an ornithologist and a naturalist. This passion is evident in the meticulous care he takes in painting his birds and entire natural world.
Uttech’s work also brings to mind another association: a tomb painting from ancient Egypt of the Old Kingdom Pharaoh, Nebamun enjoying his favorite pastime, hunting, surrounded by flocks of birds and a river teeming with fish. These paintings were created to ensure the Pharoah’s pleasure in the afterlife. Uttech’s paintings evoke a similarly timeless and mystical wonderment.
To my eyes, Uttech’s work has changed from his paintings of ten years earlier. In a work like “Nin Binassawagendam,” the subject matter is the same or similar but the look has softened and looks less crisp and bright. It’s a gentler, more muted palette.
Tom Uttech, NIN BINASSAWAGONDAW (965), Oil on Board, 15 5/8 x 18 3/8″
One of my favorite paintings is “Nin Gaskansas” (2014), a large work which features Uttech’s iconic black bear standing toward the center of the painting confronting the viewer and looking very human. The colors range from autumnal to wintry and a gentle fog swirls around the strip of land which envelopes the bear. The foreground is a palimpsest of decaying tree branches submerged in a pond and there are several layers in the water, combining the past, visible under the surface, the water itself and a dappling of lily pads floating on top of the surface.
The effect is truly remarkable both for the skill with which it’s painted and for the feeling it elicits of depth, reflections and color. It’s a place where many of us, commoner or Pharaoh, might want to enjoy the afterlife.
Through January 3, Tory Folliard Gallery, 233 N. Milwaukee St.
Art review: ‘The Singing and the Silence’ at Smithsonian American Art Museum
For the Washington Post, by Mark Jenkins, December 18, 2014
Humans have always admired, and even emulated, birds. They want to fly like them, sing like them and, in the finest of clothing, approach the beauty of their plumage.
But humans have also always killed birds, even annihilating whole species.
“The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, ponders both the admiration and the devastation. The exhibition marks the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, a species that may have numbered in the billions when ravenous Europeans first arrived in North America. But it also commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, a national effort to preserve untamed lands and untamable animals.
Of the 12 contemporary artists in the show, all of whom are American, Tom Uttech seems most attuned to the wilderness. His vast, sumptuously rendered paintings are inspired by visits to protected forests in Ontario and northern Wisconsin. His visions of mass migrations are realistic in their particulars but fanciful in composition: Huge numbers of birds and mammals rush across the canvas, sometimes observed by a bear seated contemplatively at the center.
Tom Uttech, Enassamishhinjijweian, 2009, Oil on Linen, 103 x 112 inches. From the Collection of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
At the other end of the gallery, and in stark contrast to Uttech’s depiction of abundance, are David Beck’s elegies for the dodo, another extinct species. The artist’s memorials take many forms: pencil drawing, bronze sculpture, even a mini-museum building that’s just big enough to hold a model of one dodo skeleton. What’s constant is the rebuking figure of the bygone creature, whose name became a synonym for “stupid” because it didn’t realize it should fear people.
Beck’s dodos are at one end of the exhibition, near other works of vanished birds. Walton Ford’s exquisitely detailed paintings and drawings include one of a massive flock of passenger pigeons and another that imagines the elephant bird, an approximately 10-foot emu-like creature that once lived on Madagascar. Rachel Berwick’s ghostly “Zugunruhe” is a tree full of translucent pigeons cast in resin, while James Prosek’s full-wall mural shows birds in silhouette, flocking through a forest. The picture is modeled on bird guides but, unlike those books, provides no information on individual species. This is birdwatching for people who don’t carry a checklist.
A passenger-pigeon specimen is one of the birds, both living and mummified, captured in a section of the show devoted to photographs. Joann Brennan, who snapped the lifeless pigeon at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, also photographs research projects that manage avian populations. Lorna Bieber manipulates and rephotographs stock images of birds; Paula McCartney observes the real things in their sylvan habitat; and Barbara Bosworth portrays them perched on human hands. In Bosworth’s poignant images, such tiny species as the blue-winged warbler and the common yellowthroat appear exceptionally vulnerable.
The more fanciful work, Uttech’s included, is on the other side of the gallery. It is there that winged creatures erupt from a center point, feathering the entire canvas in Fred Tomaselli’s “Bird Blast.” With their luxurious detail, gilded shapes and one-dimensional renderings, the artist’s collage-paintings suggest medieval European and classical Persian illuminated manuscripts.
A dodo and a passenger pigeon also perch in an area devoted to sculptural work by Petah Coyne, who incorporates taxidermy birds into bizarre assemblages, and by Laurel Roth Hope, who crochets “biodiversity reclamation suits” to cloak wooden pigeon models. More puckishly, she builds bird models from such components as hair barrettes, fake fingernails, false eyelashes and other items designed to beautify women. After so many birds have yielded their feathers for fashion, it seems only fair that Hope raided the hair and makeup aisles to create her majestic “Regalia.”
Still, the goal of “The Singing and the Silence” is not to celebrate the simulated bird, however artful or amusing. This is one art exhibition in which the work, however deft or affecting, doesn’t seek to upstage its subject. The made objects are secondary to the soaring, fluttering thing itself.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art Through Feb. 22 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and F streets NW. (Metro: Gallery Place). 202-633-1000. www.americanart.si.edu. Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Free.
Tom Uttech, Widigendaa (978), Oil on Linen, 43×59 inches
By Shane McAdams, Art City contributor, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Dec. 17, 2014
“It’s ironic that my first exposure to Tom Uttech‘s paintings was in a high-rise on 57th Street in New York City on a late summer day in 2006, that I “discovered” his eccentric paintings inspired by the North Woods in the maw of midtown Manhattan. It’s also a bit ironic that what most moved me about his work at the time was their openness, earnestness and complete lack of the ironic detachment – an attitude that seemed to elude so many other painters at the time.
So, sometime around or just prior to 2006 the forest became de rigueur: hipster rock bands derived names from it, grizzly man beards flourished, and tunes about bears, foxes and wolves abounded on college radio stations. The art world too was awash with downtowners fetishizing life in dreamy wooded sanctuaries far from Williamsburg. I don’t know how many full-moons and pine trees I saw on display at Art Basel Miami in 2006, but I know it surpassed the number of artists for whom those things truly mattered. It seems the beards are all that survived from those days in the simulated forest.
Meanwhile, Tom Uttech kept painting what he loved, as he always had, in and about the places that captivated and spiritually fulfilled him. Places like the Boundary Waters, Quetico Provincial Park and the Ojibwe Nation. For Uttech these sources are essential, so far beyond the petty trends of the art world that it might make one want burn their glossy art magazines, or better, throw them into a compost heap.
After seeing that remarkable show in 2006 – about which I still have notes in an art viewing diary I maintain – it somehow retreated into my subconscious for a few years, during which time I happened to relocate to Wisconsin, coincidentally just three miles from his current studio. Uttech’s work reemerged for me shortly after settling in on a trip to the nearby Museum of Wisconsin Art.
Atop the museum’s staircase hangs a singularly incredible painting of a large pallid moose, whose brazen stare disrupts an otherwise perfectly tranquil wooded scene. Its confrontational gaze scolds, even implicates, the viewer. In what, it’s not clear. Perhaps simply for interrupting; maybe for something more grave. It struck me as kind of a G-rated, ecologically-minded “Demoiselles D’Avignon” at first. But even as I admired the strangely familiar painting with the rune-embellished, folksy frame, I couldn’t place it. Shortly thereafter I stumbled across the second of his paintings on permanent display at MOWA: a surreal, pale-greenish sunset enveloping a marsh teeming with gnarly trees, howling wolves, and birds tumbling through the sky. And it all came rushing back.
“Ah yes, that guy” who, to paraphrase my notes about the 2006 show, “painted the wilderness like an artist raised by a pack of magical wolves.”
And so it was with eager anticipation that I awaited Tom Uttech’s 9th solo show at Tory Folliard Gallery, which has just opened.
“The Spirit of the Forest” features 30 new oil paintings and two drawings that inhabit a wrinkle in the universe where observation and fantasy, static and ecstatic, particular and universal all live side-by-side with owls, moose and bears. Uttech manages his abundance of detail, association and imagery such grace that allows them a deceptive innocence. Soothing, self-possessed, and splendid, their serenity is inevitable broken by subtle and not-so-subtle intrusions: hidden figures, oddly anthropomorphic animals, strange symbols in the boughs of trees, and every so often by rapturous and/or euphoric swarms of wildlife, suggestive of either biblical plagues or the chickens going all bananas in Muppet Movies.
Historically, the paintings are indebted somewhat to the traditions of Luminist and Hudson River School painting, especially that of John Kensett and Fitz Hugh Lane. Maybe George Inness without the people. And to all those transcendentalists and American mystics who added meta to their physics and super to their nature. But mostly the work feels like Tom Uttech. It feels of him, that he imaginatively possesses these places, and to some degree, they possess him as well.
This week, for this edition of Art City Asks, I had the honor of sitting with Tom Uttech in his converted-barn studio in the undulating Kettle Moraine country north of Milwaukee (Funny, Tom Uttech always feels North of something, never south of another.) We spoke about everything from ecology to guilty studio pleasures to the meaning of art. I also asked if he knew his work was especially cool with hipsters in 2006.
Shane McAdams: What are you working on in your studio currently?
Tom Uttech: I’m working on the beginnings of my next show at Alexandre Gallery in New York. When that will be is yet undetermined and depends on how long it takes me to make the work. I never know exactly how long that will be, but I sure hope I can have a show ready in a year-and-a-half.
SM: Who are your guilty pleasure artists, why do you feel you shouldn’t like them and why do you like them anyway?
TU: Almost all the artists I like are artists I’m not supposed to like. I like Da Vinci.
SM: I don’t think you should feel guilty about that.
TU: I think that’s totally out of step with what people look to now. People like Jeff Koons. I don’t look at Koons. I really like Vermeer. I like Carl Larsson, the Swedish illustrator. He’s a heck of a designer and a great painter. And I have come to accept that I like that stuff because of my exposure to formalism, which is more concerned with the structure of a painting than the content of it.
SM: Tell me about a failed piece of work and what you learned from the process of failing?
TU: This isn’t a joke but I feel that I’ve only made a handful of paintings that weren’t failures. And it’s hard to differentiate one failure from another. And many times I’ve had paintings end up back at my studio and I work back into them. I really think that at the time they’re all failures.
SM: Do you mind if I respectfully disagree?
TU: Of course, but I mean only that at some point during the process of making that I feel they’re all failing and I have to rework and revisit them over and over. I’m almost never satisfied. The funny thing about a painting is that the most successful ones look like they were easy. But it takes an absurd amount of determination to hopefully make it look like it wasn’t labored over as much as it was.
SM: Do you appreciate a painting more if you battled it and reworked it more than one that was relatively more cooperative?
TU: In the end it doesn’t matter. Whatever ends up in the painting is what determines its success.
SM: What is art for? I think we could grow old here trying to answer that question…
TU: I don’t feel qualified saying anything about that at all. People have wanted to make it and look at it from the dawn of history on, and I think the reasons for that are beyond me.
SM: It’s like that quote by Barnett Newman that art theory is to artists what ornithology is for birds, right?
TU: In a sense yeah. Well, exactly.
SM: Who do wish you would have had the chance to meet?
TU: Oh, there is somebody: Morris Graves. I kick myself, because I would have had the opportunity if I’d just pursued it. Penny Schmidt when she was my dealer in New York. She worked with Morris. He was an artist who mystified me from art school on. He’s sort of a guilty pleasure too. I wish I would have pursued him harder.
SM: What was your first art experience?
TU: There was a first experience that led to art, but I can’t recall a first art experience specifically. The first experience is one of my earliest memories that led me to think about art at all, and surely led to my relationship with nature in general. That was a view of view of a red-winged blackbird flying across a field in June where my grandparents lived. His wings were extended with these black and yellow epaulets against a green field. That scene burned in my brain. My art experience goes back so far I can’t place where it started. My mother told me I always had crayons in my hands…
SM: That makes me feel a lot better than if you’d said you picked it up last year after retiring from selling derivatives at Goldman Sachs.
TU: (Laughs) I know plenty of people like that.
SM: What films inspire your work?
TU: Nothing, really. Nature inspires my work.
TU: I hate so say, but that’s not where my work comes from.
SM: I guess a good modification to the question would be: do you prefer to be plugged in to the outside world when you make art or do prefer to retreat into an interior place?
TU: That varies from moment to moment. I’m a compulsive NPR listener, but that can also be distracting. Sometimes it’s better to just be quiet.
SM: Is it noise or information, that is, sonic form or sonic content that distracts you?
TU: It’s really just the distraction in any form, and at different times that can be different things.
SM: I think every artist’s practice is multifaceted and I personally like to use the variation as an opportunity to satisfy different moods and urges. I feel like you do a little of the same?
TU: That’s interesting. I like that.
SM: What could you imagine doing it you weren’t a painter?
TU: That’s easy, I would do what I do with a lot of my spare time. I would be involved with a naturalist enterprise. I would be doing naturalist and ecological pursuits.
SM: What are your thoughts about Milwaukee’s creative community? Anything you particularly enjoy or would change?
TU: One thing I wish is that I could get out of my barn more often and get involved in it. It’s a fact of life that I paint a lot out here in my studio and I hear great things and wish I could plug in a little more. Even from where I am outside of the city, one thing I’ve managed to gather, and that frustrates me a lot, is the lack of opportunities for artists to make a living. It seems like it’s getting more and more difficult, especially in Milwaukee.
Oh, and about the question of hipsters liking his work:
Answer: He couldn’t care less.”
Shane McAdams is an artist, writer, curator and transplant to the Milwaukee area from the heart of the art world, the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. He is also an Art City contributor.
Tom Uttech, GIWEIASAM (950), Oil on Plywood, 13 1/8 x 33 5/8″
Tom Uttech hails from Merrill, Wis. (population approximately 9,500), where the Wisconsin River joins with the Prairie River. One suspects that being surrounded from birth by the picturesque cycle of seasons in Merrill has something to do with Uttech’s ascendance to being one of America’s foremost landscape painters and photographers.Uttech, who currently resides in Saukville, Wis., is teaming up with the Tory Folliard Gallery for his ninth solo exhibition in the space. The suite of paintings stem from Uttech’s travels to the Boundary Waters and the Quetico Provincial Park in Canada. As Uttech explains, “These paintings are all recollections of the magic I have found in the North Woods. They never depict any actual place. They hope to recreate the feelings those places generate in ourselves… I do also mean to be saying something about the richness and diversity of life on this planet and how magically wonderful this all is by packing so many individuals and species into the same place at the same time.”The exhibition opens Dec. 6 with a reception from 1-4 p.m. Uttech will be on hand to give an artist’s talk at 2 p.m. The exhibition closes Jan. 3, 2015.
Birds have long been a source of mystery and awe. Today, a growing desire to meaningfully connect with the natural world has fostered a resurgence of popular interest in the winged creatures that surround us daily. The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art examines mankind’s relationship to birds and the natural world through the eyes of twelve major contemporary American artists, including David Beck, Rachel Berwick, Lorna Bieber, Barbara Bosworth, Joann Brennan, Petah Coyne, Walton Ford, Paula McCartney, James Prosek, Laurel Roth Hope, Fred Tomaselli, and Tom Uttech.
The presentation of “The Singing and the Silence” coincides with two significant environmental anniversaries—the extinction of the passenger pigeon in 1914 and the establishment of the Wilderness Act in 1964—events which highlight mankind’s journey from conquest of the land to conservation of it. Although human activity has affected many species, birds in particular embody these competing impulses. Inspired by the confluence of these events, the exhibition explores how artists working today use avian imagery to meaningfully connect with the natural world, among other themes. While artists have historically created images of birds for the purposes of scientific inquiry, taxonomy or spiritual symbolism, the artists featured in The Singing and the Silence instead share a common interest in birds as allegories for our own earthbound existence. The 46 artworks on display consider themes such as contemporary culture’s evolving relationship with the natural world, the steady rise in environmental consciousness, and the rituals of birding. The exhibition’s title is drawn from the poem “The Bird at Dawn” by Harold Monro.
Watch the video below to hear Tom Uttech speak about this exhibition at the Smithsonian and what it means to him.
Rachel Berwick’s large-scale, mixed-media installation, “Blueshift,” will be on public display for the first time as part of the exhibition, as will a temporary, site-specific mural James Prosek has created for the exhibition’s gallery space. A behind-the-scenes time-lapse video of the installation of this mural is available on the museum’s YouTube channel. Artworks by each artist can be viewed in our online gallery.
The exhibition is organized by Joanna Marsh, The James Dicke Curator of Contemporary Art.
Credit: The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with generous support from Rollin W. King, The Margery and Edgar Masinter Exhibitions Fund, Caroline Niemczyk, Debbie Frank Petersen, Rosemary L. Ripley, Holly and Nick Ruffin and the C.K. Williams Foundation.
Artist’s Reception: December 6, 2014, 1:00 pm – 4:00 pm; Artist Talk at 2:00 pm
Wisconsin native Tom Uttech returns for his ninth solo exhibition at the Tory Folliard Gallery.
During his trips to the Boundary Waters between northern Minnesota and Wisconsin and the Quetico Provincial Park in Canada, Uttech gathers experiences and memories to fuel his new paintings. Mythic, atmospheric, and astoundingly detailed, this new body of work epitomizes his passionate interest in the wilderness.
In the artist’s own words: “These paintings are all recollections of the magic I have found in the North Woods. They never depict any actual place. They hope to recreate the feelings those places generate in ourselves … I do also mean to be saying something about the richness and diversity of life on this planet and how magically wonderful this all is by packing so many individuals and species into the same place at the same time.”
Uttech is the recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters – Award in Art and the Wisconsin Visual Art Lifetime Achievement Award.
His paintings are in museum collections across the U.S. including Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AK, Milwaukee Art Museum, Honolulu Museum of Art, Tucson Museum of Art, Museum of Wisconsin Art, West Bend, WI, and the Chazen Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Tom Uttech’s compelling 2010 painting NIGANADIKIMOWININI (907) recently became available. This oil on linen painting measures 37×45 inches and is beautifully finished with the artist’s hand painted frame. The intricately painted, covert creatures are inscrutable and serene: mysterious qualities Uttech conveys conclusively.