Painting Through Conventional Labels
MY first encounter with a painting by Euan Uglow - in 1972, when he won first prize at Britain's prestigious John Moores Exhibition in Liverpool - gave me a feeling of blandness. I remember thinking that his painstakingly academic prize-winning painting, of an unusually elongated nude, consisted of just about everything modern art aimed not to be. It seemed to me to be literal to the point of dullness, stultifyingly static, and methodical and measured to a degree that might have something to do with patient skill, but little to do with the excitements of "art." Almost worst of all, Uglow's work treated the model as if she were scarcely a living being, as little more than an object for an artist to scrutinize dispassionately. There was, in all, something uninspiringly impersonal about the painting. I found it difficult to accept that such work - f o
r all its competence - should have been given the recognition it was. And yet I did have a niggling feeling that I might be missing something.
Today, having seen much more of Uglow's work, I am forced to eat my previous thoughts - up to a point at least. Any painting that can, as potently as Uglow's, impose its "after-image" on the mind so that even the most ordinary and taken-for-granted objects - an apple, a jar with flowers, the form of a face - seem to invite fresh investigation or new appraisal, is not to be sniffed at. A cliche is after all a too-familiar truth needing new vision. Why shouldn't an artist try to give fresh vitality to old
In the old divide between "romantic" and "classic," Uglow's work falls squarely on the classic side. My mistake had been to expect him to be D. H. Lawrence when he was actually T. S. Eliot. He is of the Ingres camp rather than the Delacroix; Bach rather than Brahms. And yet, of course, nothing is quite as simple as that.
In fact Uglow's paintings play a kind of fascinating havoc with conventional labels. Immensely serious, he can also - as the "still life" paintings on this page indicate - be surprisingly witty and ironic. Apparently a conventional studio artist working with posed models and grouped pears, he has an abstract artist's scrupulous sensitivity to the way an image in a painting relates to the rectangle in which it is placed.
One of his early paintings was actually called "Passionate Proportion," a paradox that goes a long way to explaining where feeling lies in his art. Balance and harmony of form, tone, line, and color are all part of his picturemaking: He has said that it is more important for a picture to be "right" than "like." It might be added, though, that his "passion" clearly extends to likeness as well. Accurate transcription into the terms of a picture of an object viewed and studied at considerable length does m a
ke his choice and placing of his motif of vital significance. He is not an abstract painter.
Nevertheless, his use of straight symmetry relates him to minimal and purely abstract sculpture of the 1960s and '70s on the one hand - and to Masaccio's fresco, "The Holy Trinity" (c. 1428), on the other. This Italian Renaissance painting is just one of the works of that period that Uglow openly admits he "loves." He also gets great pleasure from the ordered, immaculately composed paintings of Piero della Francesca.
Uglow quite evidently finds in Japanese prints - he mentions the artist Kitagawa Utamaro specifically - something quite different from what those other great admir- ers of this genre, the French Impressionists, found. Presumably what he likes about them has to do with shallow, perpective-less space, and the beautiful arrangement of figures on a two-dimensional picture plane. These concerns are certainly his, while the "spontaneity" of Impressionism could hardly be further away.
But Uglow is not one of those deliberately "traditional" painters who ignorantly flouts the art of his own time, opting for mere old-fashionedness. He does - and this matters - know what he is doing by mining where most of his contemporaries do not.
Uglow makes obstinately deliberate explorations into aspects of picturemaking that others consider long dead and buried. It is as though he has never left art school, but discovered there, in the life-drawing class, in the dust of old exercises, in the contrived arrangement of objects on a table, even in the casts of classical busts, not just something still to be taken very seriously, but something that still has plenty in it worth bringing to the surface.
"Making" is an essential concept for Uglow. He copied something Matisse said into a notebook: "Making a picture would seem as logical as building a house, if one worked on sound principles." And although a kind of dryness might be one result of such an approach, even dryness can be a positive quality in art if strongly felt. Clarity, incisiveness, and intelligent logic have been a matter of fierce import to many other artists - Poussin, Cezanne, Seurat, and Gris. The tight rein such artists have imposed
on their paintings has always had the effect of disclosing a sensuous tenderness just below the surface.
One thing Uglow does not credit, as some of these artists did, is any notion of a pseudo-scientific formula for making a painting. "Every picture is different," he has said, and his works bear him out.
A characteristic that does, however, recur is his use of "measuring marks," sometimes vestigial, often left perfectly visible when the painting stops. Not only are these little lines and crosses his way of locating precise points of beginning and ending, but he allows them to remain for the viewer as a kind of chart or diary of his method. "If I were to paint out those marks," he told one interviewer, "it would be another picture." They are like stitching on the outside of a garment. All the same, there
is a slight danger that these points of location could become a kind of stylistic signature.
Uglow often paints both his figures and "still life" objects against a rather plain, minimally modulated background wall. In "Onion with Playing Card" he has done this; and he has further emphasized the flatness of the wall in counterpoint to the roundness of the onion by the playing card on the wall. The play of solid form against flatness sometimes makes for strange scale. The onion becomes potentially monumental. The playing card helps to reduce this monumentality by offering a scaling device, rather
like an architect drawing a figure on the street in a sketch of a proposed building. All the same - most people know pretty much the size of an onion, more or less. But then again, perhaps approximate size goes against the grain for an artist so obsessed with exact measure.
His "Camellia" employs no such device, but the kind of vase and kind of flower seem enough to tell the scale. What is intriguingly explored in this picture is the idea that the viewer's eye might be invited to travel more convincedly round an object if it leans away from the vertical. The same vase appears in another painting, and there it stands straight up. In "Camellia," though Uglow has the vase's base as flatly positioned on the table as a Masaccio figure's foot, he has made its stem lean like the t
ower of Pisa. For the sake of psychological balance, the flower compensates, within the rectangle of the frame, for this lean. But the extraordinary thing is that the image is convincing: It is "right," even if it is not "like."
The surreal and witty toothbrush painting, somewhat humorously called "The Three Graces," seems to me something of a sport in Uglow's work. The toothbrush does, however, bear a slight, if absurd, resemblance to those ancient Cycladic stone female figures that one finds in museums like the Metropolitan in New York.
But Uglow was concerned with problems set up by "Analytical Cubism presumably the attempt by Picasso and Braque to find ways of painting (in two dimensions) an object or figure from as many angles as possible. Uglow's solution, which he describes as "a modern equivalent of an analytical Cubist picture," is not in fact a modern solution at all, but - by using mirrors - a reversion to pre-Cubist ways of presenting something from all sides. Degas frequently did this kind of thing with his dancers, as did S e
urat in his quietly classical studio painting "Les Poseuses," showing the same model in three different positions: front, back, and side.
In "The Three Graces" the question of scale occurs once more, only this time, since the object is to be read as both brush and figure, he has allowed the scale to be monumental without hindrance. This silly little plastic utensil could just as easily be the size of a lamp post.