Alan Uglow, Nov. 13-Dec. 19, 1998, at Stark Gallery, 113 Crosby Street, New York, N.Y. 10012.
"My painting is all about the edge," said Alan Uglow, almost as an aside, during a brief studio visit I had with him not too long ago. Indeed, Uglow paints the most severe edge, and does it more vehemently than any other artist of his generation. The artist is widely known for paintings composed of rectangular white fields that are edged and bisected by narrow painted bands. His recent show at Stark Gallery featured several such paintings, but also included color photographs and a large sculptural object -- a soccer coach's bench. With this exhibition, Uglow has taken his interest in the fanatic global soccer subculture and successfully merged it with his command of the subculture of Minimalist abstract painting.
Uglow's four-color photographs document the literal edges of the sports arena, revealing the real-world limits of the game: a corner's outside boundaries; the no-mans' land of a wraparound running track; the razor-wire security fence separating team from spectator. These photographs are not about the drama of sports competition. Rather, they document a peculiar place with the potential for violent public disorder. Uglow's photographs mirror the work of Andreas Gursky in that both artists study the architectural reinforcement of social strata.
Even an American, non-sports-fan like me knows that some soccer fans are prone to hooliganism. This extreme social dimension of the game is explored in Uglow's Coach's Bench sculpture, which is comfortably placed in the center of the gallery.
The Coach's Bench looks like the real thing, a safety shelter soundly constructed with the same precision as Uglow's super-crafted paintings. As soon as you sit on the bench, you hear a back-and-forth accented chatter coming up from invisible speakers -- the rants of fans as they detail the casualties of spectator warfare. It's not for the weak-hearted. If you look up towards the ceiling, through the translucent corrugated plastic roof of the Coach's Bench, the hanging lights of the gallery form a blue frame that mimics the blue perimeter of Untitled, a painting hung low on the opposite wall.
This untitled painting is a true beauty. Hugging close to the ground, this painting screams at the viewer to vault right in and speed away, as if it were a Mach 5 or some other race car. For me, Uglow's low paintings often conjure up an automobile allusion. At one point, he used automotive-type enamel to give his work that extra finish. And Uglow has given his paintings titles like Midnight Blue-Alfa Romeo and Bordeaux Red-Maserati (both 1990).
Just to the left of the low painting, in the corner near the door, is a mound of leftover masking tape that lies there like a beached dead Portuguese man-of-war jellyfish. This is more a glimpse of the tools of the trade than a serious sculpture. It's studio detritus -- the sticky secret of Uglow's unbleeding fine lines, heaped together like last week's laundry.
Three other paintings in this show are all titled Standard and composed with white fields that are surrounded by, respectively, gray, black and burgundy bands. These three sit on tiny wood blocks on the floor, while their tops casually lean back about five or ten degrees against the wall. The black-banded painting is particularly interesting because both top and bottom sections of white contain horizontal bisecting lines, in which the first coat of white underpainting flickers fluorescently against the purer white finish of the multi-layered top coat.
Uglow's contained fields are not just any all-white surface. He's the only painter I know of who can make a white, painted area appear atmospherically still, in spite of its spotlessly clean surface. They radiate and buzz; there is nothing inert about these paintings. I cannot explain the vicious joy -- the sports fans' joy that accompanies every work in this accomplished show. I like Alan Uglow's paintings the same way I appreciate a good, sharp set of knives.
MICHAEL BRENNAN is a New York painter who writes on art.