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Artist Spotlight Series: Adam Umbach

Adam Umbach, a Brooklyn-based painter, captures the essence of childhood memories through a unique combination of photorealism and expressive mark-making.

Portrait of the artist Adam Umbach in his Studio
Portrait of Adam Umbach in his Studio

Born in Chicago, Adam Umbach currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. From an early age, Umbach was inspired by the modern masters' collection at the Art Institute of Chicago, which led to the pursuit of a BFA in painting from the University of Wisconsin. Before relocating to Brooklyn in 2019, Umbach lived in mid-coast Maine and East Hampton, New York, where the coastal imagery profoundly influenced his artwork.


Little Yachty. 54 x 60 inches. Oil and acrylic on canvas. 2024. Cavalier Ebanks.
Little Yachty 54 x 60 inches. Oil and acrylic on canvas. 2024. Cavalier Ebanks.

Umbach's paintings delve into a collective nostalgia for childhood memories by juxtaposing photorealistic representations of everyday objects with expressionistic mark-making. He uses his non-dominant hand to create thickly rendered lines and forms, fostering a sense of play reminiscent of childhood drawing. This approach results in a formal tension that mirrors the balance between his playful, often humorous subjects and the weight of the memories they symbolize. There is a sense of loneliness pervading the depiction of a single teddy bear, toy, or boat, which is counterbalanced by the comfort and hope these objects bring.


One of Umbach's projects, entitled "Father & Child," is rooted in memories of the artist's early years. As a child of divorce, he clung to building Legos and drawing favorite characters as a form of control in an ever-changing environment. As an adult, painting Legos requires the same focus and precision that these tasks took during childhood. Creating expressionistic marks with his non-dominant hand allows for a freedom and playfulness in the art that he missed as a child. Father & Child offers an addition to the long history of the Madonna and child, while also referencing Umbach's own childhood when his father was the primary caregiver. The threatening rain clouds release droplets, though both real mallards and Lego ducks would be impervious to the rain. When Umbach lost his father at seventeen, adapting to adversity was a necessary skill, much like "water off a duck’s back." At times, looking at this painting, he now also sees his wiser self leading a more anxious self out of the rain.


Barbie World. 74 x 82 inches. Oil and acrylic on canvas. 2023.
Barbie World 74 x 82 inches. Oil and acrylic on canvas. 2023.

Another project, "Barbie World," connects to a feeling of nostalgia for childhood. Painting Legos now as an adult provides the same satisfaction Umbach had when building them as a kid. The Lego T-Rex is of particular interest because, depending on the perspective, the dinosaur could be smiling with joy or clenching its teeth in anxiety. The contrast between the enduring quality of plastic and the extinction of the dinosaur is significant. Created during the summer when the movie Barbie was a cultural phenomenon, the painting reflects a "boy" toy happily existing in a feminine world and celebrates the power of the female lens in culture.


Choosing to pursue art over his prior goal of Hospitality Management was influenced by the loss of Umbach's father at seventeen. His loss provided the freedom to choose a path as an artist without the fallback of his father's restaurant. After being denied admission to the Art Institute of Chicago's graduate program, Umbach worked at his family's ACE hardware store in Chicago. A near-fatal accident and a funeral encounter led to mentorship with Thomas O’Gorman, resulting in Umbach's first meaningful art sales.

Buzzing Around II. 74 x 74 inches. Oil and acrylic on canvas. 2024. Carver Hill.
Buzzing Around II 74 x 74 inches. Oil and acrylic on canvas. 2024. Carver Hill.

Moving to Islesboro, Maine, allowed Umbach to focus on painting and exhibiting in pop-up galleries, leading to significant connections and representation by Carver Hill Gallery. Relocating to East Hampton brought him closer to the NYC art market. Working at Starbucks, Umbach connected with Janet Lehr, who began representing his work and provided opportunities to exhibit at art fairs. The pandemic allowed Umbach to paint full-time, leading to a solo show with Damien Roman and features in Elle Decor. Despite initial struggles at a Bridgehampton solo show, a recommendation led to a contract with Cavalier Ebanks Galleries, marking a turning point in his career. Returning to Stout 15 years later for a show titled Shit Out of Luck, Umbach reflects on his father's motivational phrase, reminding that moments of adversity often lead to unexpected opportunities.


In summary, Adam Umbach has exhibited work at Cavalier Ebanks Galleries, Virgil Catherine Gallery, Carver Hill Gallery, and Chase Edwards Contemporary. He has also participated in numerous art fairs, including Art Miami, Moniker Art Fair in New York, Market: Art & Design in Bridgehampton, NY, and the Philadelphia Art Fair. His work has been featured in several publications, including Elle Decor and Hamptons Magazine.


812 Maplewood In Dialogue with the Artist: Five Questions with Contemporary Artist Adam Umbach

Portrait of the artist Adam Umbach in his Studio
Portrait of Adam Umbach in his Studio

Can you walk us through a typical day in your studio? From the moment you arrive to when you leave, what does your creative process look like and how do you approach your work?


Each day is a little different. I tend to use the morning to take care of errands and admin things so my mind can be clear for the rest of the day. Then, I start cleaning palettes and preparing paint. I make my paintings in batches, so I will start by covering a collection of canvases in their background colors. Typically the colors I've chosen for that batch are a set of colors that connect to recent inspiration. On days that I have these backgrounds completed, I start with the oil painting process for the photorealistic parts of my work. Typically after I start the photorealistic objects, I will begin to add oil stick drawings to the work.


Can you discuss your process of pairing abstraction with your photorealistic depictions of recognizable objects? How do you balance abstraction with realism in your paintings?


The balance is based on the traditional training I have, which means that the abstract parts of the painting are typically there to serve the composition. I'm usually inspired first by what I want the photorealistic object to be, and then I use the drawing process to help ground the figure within its environment.

Father & Child. 48 x 36 inches. Oil and acrylic on canvas. 2024.
Father & Child 48 x 36 inches. Oil and acrylic on canvas. 2024.

How do you approach creating a connection between your personal and familial iconography and the viewer's own experiences and memories? What do you hope viewers take away from your work?


The subjects of my paintings are always personal to me, but I do try to choose things that might also have meaning for others. I actually try not to control how the viewer connects with and what they take away from my work. For me, that's part of the magic. I am fortunate to learn stories all the time from collectors who have quite personal memories that have been evoked by my paintings. I love that different people can connect the work to totally different things, but share in that same feeling of nostalgia. 


How do you envision your work evolving in the future? Are there any new techniques or themes you're eager to explore?

Beginner's Luck. 54 x 60 inches. Oil and acrylic on canvas. 2023.. Carver Hill.
Beginner's Luck 54 x 60 inches. Oil and acrylic on canvas. 2023. Carver Hill.

For me, it's always about continuing to test the physicality of paint, and improving my skill at controlling it. I push myself to constantly build that skill. My work evolves as I evolve, so rather than anticipating the future, I try to be present with where I am.


Could you share any upcoming projects or exhibitions that you're particularly excited about?


This summer, I have a solo show, Finding Home, with Carver Hill Gallery in their popup location in Rockland, ME for the month of July. It's a large, playful space across from the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, and I can't wait to fill it with my paintings. The work is always on display with Cavalier Ebanks Galleries, and I'm excited for their Nantucket gallery season to start.


Love Storm. 60 x 54 inches. Oil and acrylic on canvas. 2023. Cavalier Ebanks.
Love Storm 60 x 54 inches. Oil and acrylic on canvas. 2023. Cavalier Ebanks.



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