Look, Know: Alan Uglow
19 May 2020
“Do y’know what you look like
Before you go out?”
— The Fall
I’ve never seen Alan Uglow’s paintings in person. Initially I was concerned that this could become a weakness in my essay on Uglow’s work. But the more I read about him from those who knew him and who saw his best-known paintings when they were first exhibited, the more I’ve come to realise that there is for many an inscrutable quality about the artist. Martin Hentschel, who invited Uglow to exhibit at the Museum Haus Esters in Krefeld, Germany in 2010, and authored a monograph on the artist for the occasion, admits in his introductory essay that he was “…thrilled by the incredible presence of [Uglow’s] works and their luminous clarity, but was still unsure about what essentially preoccupied the artist…” Other friends and artists noted an indecipherable aspect to Uglow’s work and personality: David Carrier, Donald Alberti, David Reed, Bob Nickas, John Tremblay. It seems that Uglow was neither wholly cryptic nor inclined to indulge in extemporary discussions about his practice. Perhaps it makes no difference whether you look at his paintings on page or in person. They remain silent either way.
Uglow operated within his own very specific rules of engagement: what was considered acceptable or necessary to the painting was constantly being questioned and discarded. “I learned from Giacometti a certain kind of meanness I’d like to have in my work,” Uglow remarked in a 1993 interview with David Carrier. “Not in a stingy kind of way, but a poverty – without taking a lot of space, [Giacometti’s] work has incredible presence.” In the same way, a kind of sifting or distillation of form was essential to Uglow’s practice. Donald Alberti summarised this attitude: “Look closer. Look harder. Refine the vision.” Surface was important. The exposure of the canvas tooth in contrast to the built-up layers of acrylic act as a boundary, much like the sparse lines creating symmetrical proportion. Uglow’s paintings reflect a carefully ordered congruity. But then towards the end of his life, Uglow began to question this too: a painting in 2010, Untitled (not the work pictured below), demonstrated that even a rule as ubiquitous as symmetry was up for review.
Aside from their meticulous order, the paintings also exhibit a stark completeness that makes them appear as some natural phenomena, slowly constructed over time. “I always want a piece to look like it just made itself,” he told Bob Nickas. Like glaciers or geological formations, they display a “calm and direct presence”. The paintings appear imposing, even in photographs. They hang or lean confidently against the gallery wall, stripped of any superfluity yet assertive and commanding to the viewer. To create such large, austere and imposing paintings required a type of patience that was appropriately described by Nickas as “nearly glacial”. As in natural phenomena, the experience of the work is felt by simply looking. No explanation can stand in for observation.
No amount of theorising alone can validate a work. Yet when analysing Uglow’s paintings it’s almost as if no amount of theorising can successfully deconstruct his work. As a painter he wanted his paintings to speak for themselves: no theory, no bullshit. But that’s not to say Uglow never acknowledged or appreciated that he was working within a specific tradition or that he wasn’t striving towards an ideal in painting. He took his practice very seriously and resisted trends or theoretical indulgences in favour of the act of looking at a painting and experiencing it for what it is. The statement is all there on the canvas. It doesn’t need an intellectual scaffolding to prop it up. “His goal [was] to make the viewer re-experience the material world,” wrote Shirley Kaneda and Saul Ostrow. Uglow’s work is a rare example of the artist who is neither naive nor attempting anything besides what Francis Bacon referred to as capturing fact onto canvas in a way that can be experienced directly, without diatribe or explanation. The viewer looks, and the viewer knows.
Alberti, D. (2010). ‘Welcome to the Stupor Bowl: Memory, Pure Relation, and Resistance in the Work of Alan Uglow’, in Hentschel, M. (ed.) Alan Uglow. Bielefeld: Kerber, pp. 35-37.
Carrier, D., 1993. Attitude is Everything and Everything Hurts: David Carrier talks with Alan Uglow. Artforum, [online] 32(4). Available at: <https://www.artforum.com/print/199310/david-carrier-talks-with-alan-uglow-33687> [Accessed 18 May 2020].
Kaneda, S. and Ostrow, S., 1989. Alan Uglow: Hidden Agenda. Arts Magazine, (March), p.77.
Nickas, B. (2010). ‘“Always the same, always different”: Alan Uglow in Conversation with Bob Nickas’, in Hentschel, M. (ed.) Alan Uglow. Bielefeld: Kerber, pp. 25-29.
Nickas, B. (2013). Alan Uglow. 1st ed. New York: David Zwirner, pp.7-17.
Sylvester, D., 2016. Interviews With Francis Bacon. 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, pp.9-77.