Marginally Transgressive Paintingby Gregory Williams
Alan Uglow Standards and Portraits
M.I.T. LIST VISUAL ARTS CENTER | May 9 – July 14, 2013
For anyone familiar with Alan Uglow’s paintings, “transgression” is probably not the first word that comes to mind. Uglow is an English artist who moved to New York City in the late 1960s and spent most of his career here. He remained enthralled with the formal rigor of geometric abstract painting at a moment when the dominant trends (video, performance, body art, conceptual art, land art, etc.) definitively rejected it. Uglow’s work, which he first began to show in the late 1970s (including a solo exhibition at the Mary Boone Gallery in 1978), is worth revisiting now that the M.I.T. List Visual Arts Center has mounted a small but beautifully installed exhibition of two late series of paintings: Standard and Portraits of a Standard, which collectively cover the period from 1992 to the artist’s death in 2011.
Uglow quietly developed these series during the boisterous years of the culture wars in which many artists prioritized physicality, transgression, and social engagement over formal contemplation. Working against the tide, Uglow crafted clean pictures organized according to a strict logic and visible structure; each “Standard,” which he began producing in 1992, consists of straight horizontal and vertical lines painted mostly along the edges or across the center of the canvas. Short tabs interrupt the surface at intervals, slightly disturbing the sense of equilibrium conveyed by the rectangles resting on top of one another. Various degrees of transparency and opacity are also discernable when closely observed, as Uglow built up his surfaces with dozens of layers of paint. The resulting works are austere, rational, and appear to be motivated by an uncompromising seriousness of purpose. Yet to dismiss his work as anachronistic and removed from the concerns of his time would be to ignore the ways in which Uglow’s paintings establish a liminal space between embodiment and detachment. In the right lighting (installation requires sensitivity and patience) the viewer becomes conscious of his or her movements in front of the works, whose surfaces transform with only slight shifts in positioning. The initial impression of coldness and consistency gives way to a more dynamic interaction, with flashes of warmth and unpredictability as the paint both reflects and absorbs the light.
Perhaps most crucial to the visual experience, the majority of the Standard paintings lean against the wall, propped up on two small blocks of wood. Even without this overt acknowledgement of their status as physical objects, the paint typically wraps around the edges of the surface, like strips of tape, to call attention to the sides of the canvas support. Uglow thus stands in a line of painters, from Piet Mondrian through Frank Stella to Blinky Palermo, who upset the singular focus on opticality by lending their works a resolutely tactile quality. After offering variations on this approach throughout the 1990s, around 2000 Uglow added another degree of reflexivity with his Portraits of a Standard series. For these works he photographed the Standard paintings at an oblique angle and silkscreened the images onto canvas. Likewise placed on wood blocks, the “Portraits” seem to withdraw from view even as one recognizes that both series rely on the same support structure. At the List and in past exhibitions, works from these two series are shown within relatively close proximity. The result is both revealing and concealing: on the one hand, the quasi-doubling effect suggests that these painting-objects stick to a loose formula and are thus repeatable; on the other, the shift of focus from a “Standard” to a “Portrait” entails being distracted by the latter from the surface so sensitively handled in the former. The eyes dart back and forth between the objects in a closed-circuit viewing experience that does not allow the gaze to settle upon a single target. And yet the comparison between the two can bring out aspects of a “Standard” highlighted by the specific qualities of the “Portrait.” For instance, in “Portrait of a Standard (Blue)” (2000), the strong shadows along the right edge of the photographed painting prompt the viewer to closely examine the space (a standard 8 cm) between the gallery wall and the frame at the bottom of “Standard #8 (Blue)” (1994).
At the same time, as writers such as Stephen Ellis and Bob Nickas have noted, Uglow often exhibited photographs stemming from his passion for soccer alongside the paintings. His photos of soccer stadiums and team benches implied that the mute paintings could reach outward to connect with everyday, warm-blooded, tactile events. This is Uglow’s moment of transgression, to suggest that geometric abstraction might need to insist upon anything more than its formal and material properties. Although certainly not meant to appear as analogue representations of stadium layouts, the Standards often contain two dominant rectangular halves that translate roughly to the two sides of a soccer field but also set up an internal opposition. Opting for a more focused installation, João Ribas, the List curator, did not include the sport photographs, allowing the viewer to engage the paintings with fewer visual distractions. Still, considering the paintings and the photographs together, one gets the sense that formal abstraction was never quite enough for Uglow on its own terms. Or, perhaps better, he recognized, as have many painters before him (even if they did not admit it), that no abstract image is experienced entirely without reference to external reality and, more provocatively, that all abstract images ultimately derive from some preceding visual source, whether or not it is consciously acknowledged. The oblique angle of his Portrait pictures might relate to Uglow’s own position in the New York art world: a subtly transgressive artist who realized that embodiment does not necessarily require the direct depiction of bodies.
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GREGORY WILLIAMS is assistant professor of contemporary art at Boston University.