When arranging their summer exhibition of paintings by Douglas Max Utter, the curators of Survival Kit Gallery could not have predicted the artist would win the Cleveland Arts Prize's Lifetime Achievement Award.
It was their coup that he did, but Utter himself has remained level-headed about it. When asked about the awards ceremony, he talks about the good food and the opportunity to see friendly people from the art world whose schedules usually don't align. Nor has the "Lifetime Achievement Award" phase of his career lead to a stagnating variety of self satisfaction. For Survival Kit's exhibit Curious Things, Utter is displaying three huge five-and-a-half-foot tall canvases in his familiar medium of painting. However, for the first time, he is also presenting objects in media that are new to him: etchings and printing.
For some time, Utter's work has included exercises in symbolic biography and introspective explorations, but the intimacy of this new work is startling. Most are based on photographs from the artist's own family albums, from stoic portraits of great-grandparents to snapshots from holiday parties. We see family members quickly posed on couches, with a Christmas tree in the background and children hastily scooped into laps. Utter's pen and brush strokes are conspicuous in their fluid sweeps, but their spontaneity creates an effect like the easy motions and postures of individuals at home around each other. These lifelike rhythms are not broken even when a little girl's head is replaced with that of a Labrador Retriever, or when a deer stands in for a parental guardian.
Utter's device of swapping in animalistic ciphers for family members is not an exercise in surrealism or storybook illustration. It is a device for exploring pressing personal questions relating to personal and social identity. Another person's being is always to some degree inscrutable, and for Utter, it ought to be so. "Identity is not anyone's business but your own," he says. But at the same time, to know someone, it seems we have to know something about them. But the facts on the ground are always changing. Like everyone, Utter has seen his loved ones grow, shrink, evolve, and transplant themselves into new circumstances. He says several very important persons in his life have been transgender, and have transitioned so that outward appearances reflect previously private identities.
By replacing the bodies of his near and dear with those of animals, Utter emphasizes how even those people closest to us can and do become, by degrees, unfamiliar. There are even suggestions that present selves cannot always recognize past counterparts. In the "Family with Bears" series, the artist himself is represented by a towering grizzly, albeit one with a teddy-like tenderness about the face.
We cannot understand the personalities of Utter's animalistic family members through the usual facial cues. We are forced to understand the portraits' subjects in terms of their relationships to one another. The Labrador-headed girl sits stiffly in the lap of the woman holding her, but not because she is uncomfortable. Hers is the stiffness of a child too big to be held, but who tolerates being held out of deference or affection. The woman holding the girl is beaming, unfazed by the child's canine attributes. One takes away the optimistic suggestion that a meaningful relationship can endure even when its members are not how we remember them, nor even within the sphere of one's understanding.
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