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.
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.
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.
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