Tom Uttech - Featured on THE ARTS PAGE, March - 2015

Tom_Uttech_The Arts Page

Tom Uttech was recently interviewed by MPTV’s The Arts Page.  They spoke with him in the gallery and at his studio.  Watch Tom’s segment below:


The Salon Show

July 11 – September 5

Artists’ Reception on Gallery Night, Friday, July 24 from 6 to 9 pm

The Salon Show is the Gallery’s biggest exhibition of the year. Featuring new work by many of the top artists from the Midwest. Participating artists are: Tom Berenz, Mary Bero, Chris Berti, Craig Blietz, Mark Brautigam, Derrick Buisch, Mark Chatterley, Marion Coffey, Terrence Coffman, Ben Grant, Doug Hatch, Kathy Hofmann, Laurie Hogin, Mark Horton, Breehan James, Ed Larson, Clare Malloy, Cathy Martin, Nancy Mladenoff, Mark Mulhern, Charles Munch, Dennis Nechvatal, William Nichols, Michael Noland, Jennifer Price, Bill Reid, Jeffrey Ripple, Jason Rohlf, Jan Serr, Elizabeth Shreve, Brook Slane, T.L. Solien, Nathaniel Stern, Fred Stonehouse, Stephanie Trenchard, Tom Uttech, Russ Vogt, Mary Alice Wimmer, and Betsy Youngquist.


Tom Uttech Art Review in Ubran Milwaukee Dial – December 2014

The Strange Beauty of Tom Uttech’s Paintings: Now at the Tory Folliard Gallery, they capture a kind of North Woods that doesn’t really exist, though we might wish it did.

By Rose Balistreri – Dec 19th, 2014 for Urban Milwaukee Dial

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″

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″

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.


Tom Uttech Featured in Washington Post Art Review - December 2014

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

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. Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Free.


Tom Uttech Interview in Milwaukee Journal - December, 2014

Art City Asks: Tom Uttech

Tom Uttech, Widigendaa (978), Oil on Linen, 43x59 inches

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.

SM: Music?

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 in Shepherd Express - December, 2014


Tom Uttech at Tory Folliard

Exhibit by one of America’s foremost landscape artists

By Tyler Friedman of the Shepherd Express
Tom Uttech, GIWEIASAM (950), Oil on Plywood, 13 1/8 x 33 5/8"

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.

Tom Uttech in Smithsonian Exhibition through February 2015

The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art
Smithsonian American Art Museum, 3rd floor North, American Art Museum (8th and F Streets, N.W.)
Now through February 22, 2015

Tom Uttech, Nind Awatchige, 2003, oil on canvas, 112 1/2 x 122 1/2 x 2 1/2 in., New Orleans Museum of Art: Museum Purchase, the James and Maya Brace Fund, 2004.29, © Tom Uttech. Image courtesy New Orleans Museum of Art

Tom Uttech, Nind Awatchige, 2003, oil on canvas, 112 1/2 x 122 1/2 x 2 1/2 in., New Orleans Museum of Art: Museum Purchase, the James and Maya Brace Fund, 2004.29, © Tom Uttech. Image courtesy New Orleans Museum of Art

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.

Tom Uttech -

December 6, 2014 – January 3, 2015

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, NIGANADIKIMOWININI (907)-December, 2013

907Niganadij 37x45Tom 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.

Inhabited Landscapes at James Watrous Gallery-Fall, 2013

By Randall Berndt

In his seminal book on landscape painting, Kenneth Clark writes that “we are surrounded with things which we have not made and which have a life and structure different from our own: trees, flowers, grasses, hills, clouds. For centuries they have inspired us with curiosity and awe. They have been objects of delight. We have recreated them in our imaginations to reflect our moods.”

And eminent art historian, Clark examined and wrote much about historic landscape painting styles. An Englishman with an orderly mind, Clark devised a few classifications for these styles—“the landscape of symbols,” “the landscape of fact,” and “the landscape of fantasy”—that he hoped would shed light on to what uses landscape imagery has been put over the ages.

Clark wrote that already by the 15th and 16th centuries artists had moved beyond symbolic landscapes drawn from Christian philosophy and into realism. At the time, a burgeoning merchant class fueled the craze for realist landscape painting with expressive compositions and strong contrasts of light and color.

But artists like Albrecht Altdorfer and Hieronymus Bosch felt that landscape art had become too tame and domesticated. They set about exploring the mysterious and the un-subdued, giving birth to a style that we today think of as Expressionist Art. For Clark, more recent expressionists like Vincent van Gogh, Max Ernst, and even Walt Disney exemplify this spirit of using landscape forms to express a range of emotions—disquiet and wonderment among them.

So it was that James Watrous Gallery director Martha Glowacki and I had for some time discussed the idea of curating an exhibition of Wisconsin painters who are landscape expressionists of different kinds. The artists we brought together for our recent Inhabited Landscapes exhibition (click here to see a slideshow of the images from this exhibition) may not easily fall into any of Kenneth Clark’s classifications, but they all adventure beyond mere topographical rendering. Martha and I as curators wanted to play with the idea of landscape art being “inhabited” by artists’ subjective states—mood, memory, dreams—as well as their ideas. The artists included in this exhibition all use their own visual language to create personal visions, unique ways of imbuing the natural world with meaning.


TOM UTTECH, NIN GASKANSAS (958), Oil on Linen, 49 1/2 x 53″ framed

Tom Uttech’s art is literally inhabited by memory. Uttech is passionate about spending time in the woods, leaving behind his everyday life to wander and look. His depictions of a radically wild Northwoods—northern Wisconsin and up into Minnesota and Canada—are not painted out of doors in a specific place (that is, he does not take his paint and brushes there). Rather, Uttech absorbs the atmosphere, the texture, and the light. He then returns to his studio to make paintings without preparatory drawings direct on the canvas, finding the shapes of wildness from memory. Working this way results in more powerful images, he says, eliciting more drama and connection with the mysterious moods of a fictional but naturally convincing wild place than would be possible by sitting outside and copying a tree.

Uttech grew up near Wausau, and he has spoken of a childhood visual epiphany, a magically pure event: the startlingly vivid appearance of a redwing blackbird flying above a green hay field. This memory of a colorful, natural otherness is emblematic of his life as an artist, where his love of bird life—as well as the other creatures of the Northwoods—helps Uttech transform them into messengers of the mystery of wildness. This is a world that humans cannot manufacture, and Uttech puts no human figures in his paintings because he wants to make space for the viewer to enter the painted landscape. Using Ojibwe (Anishinabe) words for his painting titles, Uttech immerses his art in the ancient life of places that have no names.

Much of John Miller’s art also comes from Northwoods wilderness areas. He has spent time as an artist in residence on Lake Superior’s Isle Royale, absorbing the spirit of that special place. Where Uttech paints in a style that is lush and romantic, with echoes of the 19th century Hudson River School, Miller has developed a system of signs to describe the essence of natural forms. Miller’s work as a graphic artist has schooled him in the power of design, and some of his paintings share elements of Japanese woodblock prints. Nature speaks through his artist’s shorthand to translate the landscape’s infinite variety into patterns, texture, and color that resonate with the ancient energies of rocks, trees, and water. The message is a visual ordering that transforms what might look like randomness into an exquisite, perfectly natural orderliness. With his art Miller is our intrepid guide to those wild places he knows; we can trek into the woods or ride along in his canoe.

Charles Munch’s paintings—like Miller’s—make a virtue of simplification. He has over the years developed a highly personal visual vocabulary of flat color pattern and stylized form that projects feeling and mood. Early in his career, Munch painted in a representational style using illusionist space and traditional figure anatomy. By the early 1980s he felt the need to make his work more emotional and expressionistic, closer to what was going on in his personal life. Munch began searching for a formal system that would allow his personality to inhabit his art. Color and a distinct geometry of landscape forms came together to merge feeling and description. Munch is a consummate colorist, using color in his work to create space and light and tune each painting to sing in its own key. Each painting is a unique adventure in design, encapsulating sometimes-dramatic and sometimes-subtle action. His narrative themes, often presented in ambiguous or mysterious imagery, nevertheless speak clearly of his concerns about the “civilizing” tendencies of humans and their destructive effects on the natural environment. This worry, however, is tempered and redeemed by his art’s luminous celebration of life.

Dennis Nechvatal’s art is the product of the artist’s deep immersion in a private world of landscape meaning. He became enchanted with nature during his youth growing up in Lancaster, Wisconsin, in the 1950s. Nechvatal experienced bucolic boyhood days: riding his bike over the rolling sun-dappled roads, fishing pole over his shoulder, and lounging for hours in the shady thickets on the banks of a trout stream. Many years later, Nechvatal has arrived at an art language that celebrates natural forms in what at first appears an idiosyncratic and primitive style. Only by surrendering to the emotional logic of Nechvatal’s busy world of color and design can one visit his delightful wonderland. Like other artists in this exhibition, Nechvatal is a close reader of art history and theories of perception. The result is the transformation of an everyday view of landscape into an alternative reality where feverish concentration on detail, a sharply focused definition of otherwise soft forms, and sparkling color beguile the eye and lure viewers into this green space humming with nature’s secrets. In Nechvatal’s world, the trees, flowers, and rocks can become figurative elements—energetic primal effigies promoting affection, awe, and maybe a little fear as to what surprises nature has to offer us.

Living on Madison’s east side, Barry Carlsen has found some of his landscape subject matter in his neighborhood’s backyards and bike paths. He has always been interested in the ways that nature coexists with built environments. Carlsen grew up in Omaha where he became intrigued with old industrial warehouse architecture. His family vacationed in northern Minnesota, where he was also imprinted early on with the magic of the water and the woods, the campfire, and the muskie lurking in the lily pads. Memory is embedded in all his painted landscapes whether urban or Northwoods, and familial narratives are at home in both places. The search for an emotional home gives his work physical shape, and luminosity brings it to life, animating his visual autobiography. Carlsen has said that he uses light as a unifying element in his paintings to heighten the emotional level of the work. Light from an unseen source and the transition between night and day intrigues him. He is interested in human scale in the environment and context’s effect on objects and their meanings. Whatever the content, he sees the paintings as “emotional vignettes,” rather than formal landscapes. They represent visual remembrances; the artist paying homage to place and time.

Landscape art can be inspired by the poetry of exotic places, but it can also come from an everyday source. Cathy Martin is a farmer as well as an artist who has a lifelong connection with the rolling countryside near Prairie du Chien. Her hands-on experience with the land lends her art an authenticity that results in imagery that goes beyond picturesque recording. Her recognition of the beauty of fields formed by good stewardship of the land—as well as her knowledge of what is required to raise a crop and conserve the soil—makes her a natural interpreter of her home ground. Self taught as an artist, Martin instinctively composes her paintings in ways that invite the viewer to stand where she stands, to feel the ground beneath the alfalfa. These are pretty places, to be sure, but they also grow the hay that feeds the cattle. Appreciation of the patterns of this singular landscape, as well as its weather and seasonal moods, makes a satisfying life for Martin and her family—and some incredibly beautiful landscapes.

David Lenz lives in Shorewood, Wisconsin, and some of his subject matter comes from places in and around nearby Milwaukee. Another important source of inspiration for Lenz is the landscape of Sauk County in southwest Wisconsin’s Driftless Area where he and his family own a hilly piece of land next to a small, traditional dairy farm owned by Erv and Mercedes Wagner. Lenz became close friends with the Wagners and documented their work and their lives on the canvas in loving detail. Lenz has also portrayed his son Sam, who has Down Syndrome, in that farm landscape for a portrait that won first prize in the Smithsonian’s prestigious 2006 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. He has also painted portraits of children of different races who live in Milwaukee’s working class neighborhoods. In these varied subjects that he calls “the three legs of my painter’s stool,”—farm life, people with disabilities, and inner-city youth—Lenz honors the dignity of his subjects in whatever circumstances he finds them. Regular people in regular places commingle in a painting style where realism is so stunningly heightened that ordinariness becomes spiritual. Landscape, urban or rural, is always the surrounding for David Lenz’s art. In all their glowing naturalistic detail, his paintings become a transcendent setting for people in their places who might not otherwise be celebrated.

For me, the Inhabited Landscapes exhibition is as much a celebration of nature that delights and intrigues as it is a collection of diverse perspectives on the natural world that provoke questions about the role of nature in our lives. In the work of seven fine Wisconsin artists with different life experiences with the land, we have seven individual visual narratives of how we all inhabit a landscape of our own perceptions. Exhibitions like this inform our own sense of place and give us plenty to think about when it comes to recreating nature on a canvas.

Indeed, ideas about “landscape into art” in this postmodern age are as complicated and varied as they were for Kenneth Clark writing on the topic in the middle of the last century: They can run the gamut from an innocent and friendly nature scene all the way to a lurid rendition of environmental apocalypse, spawned by anxieties over what we humans have wrought on this planet. The work in Inhabited Landscapes falls in diverse and rewarding ways between these two extremes.

And yet for many of us the beauty and grandeur of nature is all mixed up with concern about what the weather will do to us next, whether the oceans will rise, and whether we will still be hearing the meadow lark’s song from that pasture fence post a few years hence. More and more folks walk down the street looking at the digital device in their hand, not seeing the spectacular panorama of blossoming cumulus clouds in the startlingly blue sky overhead or (apparently seen only by this writer) the Cooper’s hawk’s dramatic swoop at a hapless popcorn-eating sparrow on the Capitol lawn in downtown Madison. So many of these messages of natural wonder are not being received when we submerge ourselves in virtual realities.

But we share in common the environment that sustains us all. Having seen landscape made into art in the gallery and on these pages, we might all go outside, eyes and minds stimulated, to notice more—and to value more—of what is all around us in the city as well as in the country.