Art City Asks: Tom Uttech
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