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Journey Through Haunted Imagery of Douglas Max Utter

In one sense, the people in Douglas Max Utter’s paintings look like they come from a box of family photos.  But, these seemingly random images of parents, children and lovers often feature cracked surfaces with rough coats of color swirling across faces.

"Abduction #5" (2005) by Douglas Max Utter  [Courtesy: HEDGE Gallery]

Utter has developed this sometimes spiritual, sometimes unsettling style over a long career as an artist and art writer.  A new exhibition of his work recently opened at Cleveland’s HEDGE Gallery. It’s called “Falling From the Sky of Now,” and he sees it as a career retrospective.

Thinking back over that career, Utter said his early work focused on his parents, and then his style developed from there.

“I think my serious phase in my work, that I feel is mature, began in the mid-80s when my children were born,” he said.

Many of Utter’s paintings start with a photograph.

"Portrait of Chris" (2007) by Douglas Max Utter  [Courtesy: HEDGE Gallery]

“If I see a picture that I like, I try to translate it into paint and I let it progress on its own, as nearly as I can,” he said.  “As I go, I develop goals, like: it connects with other things I've done or it connects with other things I've seen, it connects with the history of art, it connects with my family, it connects with photography that I'm working from. I’m trying to get something new out of that, that feels fresh and yet also haunting.”

Although steeped in art history and an art-making style he’s developed over the course of five decades, Utter said he enjoys sharing work and learning about new artists through social media.  A global fan base of over 8,000 people follow him on Instagram.

“It's kind of fun and I like seeing other people's work,” he said.  “Among these eight thousand people are incredible artists from all over the world. I've learned about galleries in Melbourne and that I think I'd probably like to contact and show at some point, and there's people from all over the country from Chicago and New York.

A recent NPR story described how social media could be seen as a mixed blessing for artists.  Some observers worry that the digitization or miniaturization of images takes away from the live exhibition experience.

“I think you could worry about that,” Utter said.  “I personally believe you haven't seen a painting until you've stood in front of it because it is about interpersonal space and you have to look at it for more than a second.”

Douglas Max Utter in his studio [David C. Barnett / ideastream]

Since 1989, Utter has split his time between making art and writing about it.  He estimated he’s penned 650 articles and reviews for local and national publications.  He said he is encouraged that new writers are being groomed in outlets ranging from Scene to CAN Journal, but he also acknowledged that the infrastructure of local art writers has diminished through the years.

“There was a time when there were four or five of us writing for the Plain Dealer along with the guy who's still there [Steven Litt]; sort of adjunct writers like Amy Sparks and Dan Tranberg and me and others,” Utter said.  “So, there's less of a demand or less of a perceived demand.”

"Jinn" (2017-18)  [Courtesy: HEDGE Gallery]

Whether it’s through Instagram or a gallery, Utter said it is sometimes a strange experience to sell his art.

“I think of these paintings that I really miss, that are hanging in people's offices or homes or I just don't know what's become of them,” he said.  But, he added that it was part of the process of “keeping it real.”   

"Evening Funeral Procession" (2012)  [Courtesy: HEDGE Gallery]

“Paintings need to be part of the real world and not just kind of your own private fantasy of what the real world is,” he said.  “You're really reaching into somebody's life, into their pocket book, or into their home, into their business. You're sharing yourself with them over time in their space.

"It may feel like selling your children," he said, “And yet, I can make more, you know.”

"Self Portrait" (1962) by Douglas Max Utter  [Courtesy: Hedge Gallery]

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