Sunday, January 1, 2006

Magnetic North: The Landscapes of Tom Uttech by Margaret Andera

This is the exhibition book for an art exhibit that came to my local art museum a few years ago. I liked the exhibit a lot. I thought I would after seeing some of the advertising for it and I am really glad I went. The exhibit featured Uttech's landscape paintings from the last twenty years or so, landscapes inspired by his time spent in Northern Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park, landscapes that are dark and mysterious, painted in colors that only exist at sunrise or sunset or not at all, and featuring twisted shapes of rocks and trees and totemistic animals staring back at you as if to say that they know you are there.

My three favorites all feature bears, animals that Uttech said in one of the placards accompanying one of the paintings represented danger and mystery to him. As a boy he was always warned to be alert for bears when walking in the woods, so much so that they took on mythic properties, properties that were only reinforced for Uttech when he did encounter a bear and was confronted with its powerful presence.

The first is called Kawnipi Lightning Bugs, and shows a bear standing upright on a narrow ribbon of land between two bodies of water, at dusk with forked bolts of lightning illuminating the sky behind him. The second is Makwa Anamie Gagikwewin, which again shows a bear standing upright between two bodies of water, this time at sunrise on a clear day. What I like best about these paintings is the symbolism that perhaps I have given them. They both represent a portage, a place where you must get out of your canoe and carry it over land from one lake to the next. This journey, from one place to another, is attended by the danger and mystery that the bear represents, watching your approach and giving no indication of the best way forward with its blank face. Even though Kawnipi is more ominous in its use of color and shadow, I think I like this metaphor better in Makwa, since the portage itself is obscured by rocks and the way forward is even less clear.

It should be noted that Uttech began using Ojibwa Indian words to name these paintings early on, even though even he doesn’t know what all the Ojibwa words mean. I suppose that adds to the mysterious and primordial aura they all exude.

The third one I like is Wineboujou Gaie Manidog, which shows the back of a bear sitting in the water at the base of a tremendous waterfall, the water falling and crashing over rocks, one of which looks decidedly like a human face. It’s reverential in a way that’s hard to describe and one of the few paintings in the exhibit where you observe the animal without the animal observing you. It makes me wonder how often the bear comes to see this sight, this sight that we would otherwise never see because we don’t sit in rivers like that, how long he stays, and what his primitive brain chews on and understands that we cannot. The human face makes me think of toppled civilizations and worlds that existed before ours. The whole thing makes me think of places I will never see and the magic that may exist there without needing my knowing.

If I was filthy rich I would buy there three paintings and hang them in my sprawling cottage deep in the northwoods where I did most of my writing. Since I’m not filthy rich, I spent $30 on the official book of the exhibition.

No comments:

Post a Comment