Tiedman and Utter at Arts Collinwood

From one perspective, the bulky physicality of paint belies its use as an optically transformative medium. The flawlessly smooth paintings of Rembrandt and Vermeer epitomize the perfection of the painted surface as an illusionary skin, invisible as a mirror.

 But from Post-Impressionism on, the physical reality of paint has provided another means for artists to register information on canvas. Veteran Cleveland-based painters Randall Tiedman and Douglas Max Utter clearly know this; their outstanding joint exhibition at the Arts Collinwood beautifully demonstrates how paint can be used to record a kind of psychosocial complexity beyond the visual realm.

Tiedman has made a major breakthrough in recent years with his brooding, multifaceted landscape paintings, which he calls "inscapes." He produces the works purely from his imagination, which opens up endless possibilities for rendering the landscape as a metaphorical minefield. His densely layered landscapes invite viewers to mentally drift in and out of dimly lit pockets within seemingly boundless vistas. If these were real spaces, they would be difficult to traverse on foot. In the mind, it's easy to imagine floating over them, pausing to investigate each little world.

In Tiedman's dreamlike places, the laws of physics have been suspended. Broken and fallen structures merge with visions of landfills, chemical plants, sports stadiums and office towers. Like Piranesi's famous 18th-century etchings of imaginary prisons, they can be seen as epic visions of the apocalypse. And yet, some details — like what appears to be a series of crisp red and white banners — suggest an enduring world in which life goes on.

Up close, Tiedman's newest paintings reveal that his loose and expressive use of paint has been deftly carried from his figurative works into his landscapes. Surprisingly long lines hold the brash imprint of a straight edge, lending gritty energy to already rough terrains. Rough patches of black and umber seem to bear actual weight as they simultaneously depict shadowy recesses in his strangely beautiful world.

Utter is represented here by pieces painted over the past 25 years, including some of his strongest works: "Clinamen" from 1988, "Cleveland Rain" from 2000, and "Mother and Child" from 2002. Collectively, they show the tremendous range and nuance of his ongoing forays into unconventional paint applications.

Whether poured, puddled, sprayed or splattered, the paint in Utter's work is neither passive nor gratuitous. Often coupled with delicate brushstrokes, his bold blobs of cracked paint bring his figures into a realm of pure psychological drama. While the subjects themselves are often friends or family members, they become mythical figures, poetically entangled in life's emotional thickets.      

"I look for ways to produce images that are like the imprint of real things on physical materials — like photographs or footprints — in order to explore the perception of psychological presence," writes Utter in a statement for the show. Such imprints bring tactility into the equation of how his works so eloquently communicate. Unfettered by the limitations of a purely optical form of representation, he creates paintings in which a sense of touch is powerfully evoked as a passageway into a distinctly sensual form of human experience.

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