‘You're Not Any Safer In First Class' - on the work of Alan Uglow (19 july 1941 - 20 january 2011)
A text on the work of Alan Uglow calls for a certain pared-down quality, in the same way that his work would seem to be pared down to the essence of things.
But how does that essence express itself? First and foremost, to my mind, is the fact that the work of Alan Uglow always appears utterly present. When first confronted with it, we by no means start by asking questions regarding a design, composition or arrangement. Quite the opposite in fact, Uglow’s painting appears like a sign, something actually tangible in the room, on the wall, on the floor. Although his pictorial shapes seem to have their genesis in simple ciphers, they turn out to be constant in their differences and surprisingly rich in variations. Each of these variations stands up for itself and yet they all display unmistakably common traits.
Regarding the fundamental. What is fundamental to the work of Alan Uglow is the line, horizontal/vertical. The line acts as a frame for surface, a partition, transforms surface into space. Accordingly, one other characteristic is surface, monochrome, often almost white areas, areas that are almost threatening to disappear, as empty spaces between the lines. However these areas suddenly appear full of tension, framed, marked out, like a playing field, and where the fundamental is now becoming apparent. And so the fundamental can also be what is happening on the surface, between the lines.
Alan once said to me during a conversation that, in life there was painting and there was the game of football. For him, both are played out on a field between lines and what he considers crucial is what happens between these lines. There are two things that make this sentence noteworthy as far as I am concerned. One is the question of the fundamental, about what happens on the playing field of the canvas. The other is this evidence of Alan's enthusiasm for the game of football. Of course it is not the case that his painting is directly connected with this enthusiasm, in fact, these two areas exist independently of each other. And yet his painting does have a playful quality to it. However, this playful quality does require rules and he does move within clearly defined boundaries.
lt was very early in his career that Alan Uglow started to direct his painting towards the fundamental. "Untitled" (dating from 1974/5) already manifests the way that the work is concentrated into this one large-format, almost monochrome surface onto whose edges a tension is inscribed in the form of a kind of drawing. Here, it is the little signs that provide the framework, that make the rules regarding what is happening on the surface. Later, it is the signs themselves that stand on the surface (Untitled, 1986) that stand out from it and yet that are an inseparable component in it. Indeed, one characteristic feature of Alan Uglow's painting is the way that he focuses on surface. His images are not limited by conventional pictorial space or depth. His color fields are held within their framing lines, the stretched canvases appear as objects and no longer as windows onto the depth of the space.
Thus, with the series "Standards" at the beginning of the 1990s, Alan Uglow starts to place his pictures directly onto the ground, standing on little blocks of wood (Standard, 1993). Where previously these large formats had been hung low down, they now start to be in direct contact with the floor. His pictures become, even more, part of the room in which they are located. The canvas's slight slant (caused by the "studio situation" with the stretcher frame leant against the wall) bring an additional perspective, an additional dimension. Almost imperceptibly, the parallel lines begin to slant. The diagonal as an indication of perspective starts finding its way onto the surface. Almost imperceptible in the first of the "Standards" pictures, however very obvious in the "Portraits" that follow later in the series (Portrait of Red Standard, 2000).
These diagonals must have interested Alan Uglow in another context too. His photo series from football stadiums (i.e. Müngersdorfer Stadium. Cologne. Kölner FC, 1992) often show - through their perspective of the pitch and its markings - lines running diagonally across the viewer's field of vision. These show the horizontal structures of the stands and, in the final analysis, transport the immense spatiality of the stadium to the two-dimensional surface of the photographic paper. The stadium, as an entity in space, as an angular or curved, sometimes almost rotund, independent cosmos is projected onto the surface of the field where the real events take place.
Uglow's painting also seems to possess a spatial architecture that is different, that offers a new perspective. Horizontal and vertical lengths, between them areas separated off from one another, finally come together to create an item of constructed architecture that appears so self-evident that it is as if it had always been there. Not compositions but symbols in space.
These symbols establish contact with the room when they are located. A spatial situation comes into being, every architectural element finds its place. The fact, however, that nothing remains fixed or permanent, is something that the "Standards" reference in the way that they are mobile, on those wooden supports, and could be positioned elsewhere without any problems. The situation could be different in the twinkling of an eye.
And yet: every canvas tells its own spatial story. Not only the - sometimes almost imperceptible - color graduations between the individual surfaces map out different spaces. And even the lines themselves lay themselves out on the surface like tape. Some small fields remain uncovered with the result that here, the bottom layer of the priming is revealed. At other points, the lines appear to retreat, to sink into the surface, out of the view, or to remain only vaguely perceptible in its deeper layers. However, there is no area that forms a continuum, instead, space is only ever created by the overlapping of individual layers.
Back when he was still in London, Alan Uglow opted for non-representational painting. However, when he went to New York at the end of the 1970s this also represented a reaction against every (English) tradition of landscape painting. New York became his own, urban living space. The city's architecture, it's facades and windows appear to have given him a rhythm and a framework for his pictorial architecture. He certainly does succeed in taming this pulsating city. He succeeds in transforming the light in his studio into incredibly considered, calm images.
Light in general, and thus color, both play an enormous role in the painting of Alan Uglow. All the facets of incident light play on the monochrome surfaces. Some of the lines/tapes are drawn in color; their metallic sheen capable of filling the surfaces with a mysterious magic. Color moods are reminiscent of places, of spaces (Boston 1989, S.R., 1992) or they transform the emblematic quality of the smaller works into a poetic pictorial structure. These small fields are signs, little interference fields in space that radiate an enormous energy with its own dynamics in the succession of lines and surfaces (C. FC., 1994, Hard To Handle, 1993).