Gregory Uzelac: the workings of a visual storyteller in Sydney

Constanza Ontiveros Valdés

Exhibition View. Nice is different than good. Credit: David Akerman

Nice is different than good, the new exhibition of New York artist Gregory Uzelac, uncovers one of the main traits of our society: how one looks is more important than our actions and intentions. Through the gestural, colorful, seemingly abstract, and sometimes challenging mix-media works now on display at The Art Syndicate Gallery in Sydney, Uzelac explores the complexities of contemporary culture and analyzes how our identities are based on the perfect image we want to portray of ourselves to the world.

The 21 paintings included in Uzelac´s first solo exhibition in Australia make us remember that, aside from being a prolific visual artist that works at a frantic rhythm, Uzelac is also a writer and a comedian. By all means, he is first and foremost a storyteller. To convey his narratives Gregory frequently adds words in English or in Hebrew -drawing from his Jewish roots- to his works, and grants them satirical and ironic titles. However, Uzelac´s phrases only come to life when placed side by side to his expressive end emotionally charged gestures. In Uzelac´s words: “My practice has always been about translating narrative elements into sensory, usually, visual elements.”

In this exhibition, Uzelac presents vignettes of stories that demand us to take a second or third look at each work to uncover one layer of meaning at a time, like one does with a Matryoshka doll. Importantly, Uzelac consciously seeks to trigger the agency of the viewers, or as he calls them “his audience”, and have them in mind when creating his works. The paintings on display at The Art Syndicate Gallery tell open-ended stories inspired by Uzelac´s Jewish background and experiences in New York, where he grew up, and also draw from his life in Sydney where he is currently pursuing an MFA. Some of the works offer autobiographical commentaries that we can connect to our own experiences of loss, betrayal, heartbreak, or loneliness, usually to the ones we keep behind closed doors. At the same time, Uzelac´s stories draw from his philosophical interests revolving around the possibilities that myths have for contemporary societies.

As strongly symbolic and thematic as it is, Uzelac´s visual storytelling is also nested in an ongoing and frequently intuitive experimentation with a wide array of materials, such as ink, pastels, watercolors, spray paint, or acrylic. In Uzelac´s hand, these materials are applied layer by layer with either delicate or thick and highly gestural traces. Especially the more gestural works wink to Basquiat’s work and also have some connection to Keith Haring´s oeuvre of which Uzelac is an openly avid follower. Nonetheless, those references somewhat evaporate when one sees works as The Zoom Call where a much more straightforward and delicate visual language is seen. The latter makes it hard to label his work under one category or tradition. This diversity of formal approaches is, in part, explained by Gregory´s almost endless curiosity and relentless desire to keep on exploring new styles and materials.

Another important aspect of Gregory´s practice, which is seen throughout this show, is his use of mainly salvaged or recycled materials such as reformed or baking paper, a pizza box, book pages, or tarp, as canvases for his paintings. Uzelac says he chooses to work with these somewhat unconventional supports as a means to be eco-friendly and also as a way to play with textures, juxtapose meanings, and to turn into artworks materials that are not usually associated with art. In this way, Gregory forms part of the new generation of artists that are continuously redefining and challenging the boundaries of the medium of painting, in this case mainly by experimenting with its support.

While not intentionally created as a series by the artist, some works in this exhibition speak to each other either by including similar characters or by dealing with recurrent topics that permeate Uzelac´s practice. Such is the case of crying out to Olympus, notice me! notice me! notice me!, The Cyclops, and Agamemnon, where Uzelac intervened the pages of an art history book. These works seem both interesting and challenging to me since I have never even dared to underline an art history book with a marker or even a pencil. But here we have Uzelac who decides to paint on top of these pages that show the Delphi Theatre, Agamemnon mask, and an Ancient Greek vase creating artworks out of them.

Left: Gregory Uzelac, The Cyclops, Acrylic and pastel on salvaged paper, 49 x 39cm, 2021, Center: Gregory Uzelac, Agamemnon, Acrylic and pastel on salvaged paper, 49 x 39cm, 2020, Right: Gregory Uzelac crying out to olympus, notice me! notice me! notice me!, Acrylic and pastel on salvaged paper, 49 x 39cm, 2020. Credit: David Akerman

Now, as with anything that Uzelac does, the specific choice for the background of these three paintings came both by chance and also by his obsession with the creation and interpretation of myths. Particularly, these three works connect to Ancient Greece and to the myth of Narcissus. While this connection may not be evident at all at first glance, what draws our eyes in the first two works (crying out to Olympus… and The Cyclops) are the two naked characters taking a selfie. Both of them tell a story about the selfie-mania that permeates contemporary culture. Many of us are secretly or openly obsessed by how our bodies look and now we even keep appearances in front of an iPhone when no one else is looking. We are our own audience and the ones to decide which of the many selfies we take is good enough to share online. Even if the work painted over the image of Agamemnon’s mask is formally different from the selfie-characters’ works, it also relates to our need for approval. We need someone else to tell us we are intelligent, beautiful, and good. Once again, Nice is different than good…

At this point it is worth stopping for a minute to analyze how Uzelac depicts the human body given it is an important part of his visual vocabulary and a narrative tool with different ends. In some of the works, as is the case of the Greek-inspired works I just mentioned, or in the work Los Endos connected to his Jewish origins, we see only the colorful yet anonymous and empty outlines of male or female nude figures. At the same time, in Black cowboy, yee haw another human form is depicted over a black background as a means to analyze the legacy of Charley Pride, the first famous black Country music star who recently passed away, and at the same time, it reflects on historical and more recent issues like the Texas´ freeze that created chaos in the state. In all these works, the empty figures seem to have effaced the unique identity and traits of his characters and they also invite us, if we dare to, to fill those voids with our experiences.

Gregory Uzelac, Black cowboy yee haw, Gesso, acrylic, pencil, and pastel on salvaged cardboard, 62 x 47cm, 2021, Credit: David Akerman

However, quite on the opposite side, in other works of this show, Uzelac plays with the proportions of his characters presenting faces with distorted traits and unrealistic bodies. We see this in the two works inspired by Batman or the Hulk (Batman with Head of Slain Mangreed and u wouldn’t like me when im angry) where the figures convey the bold emotions frequently associated with these characters, while questioning the political correctness and values that we attach to them.

Left: Gregory Uzelac, U wouldn’t like me wen im angry, Spray paint, gesso, and pastel on baking paper, 75 x 30cm, 2021. Right: Gregory Uzelac, Batman with Head of Slain Mangreed, Ink, pastel, twine, and watercolour on reformed paper, 84 x 44cm, 2021. Credit: David Akerman

On the other hand, in other works of the exhibition, Uzelac deals with the social media frenzy that dictates our every interaction and where, once again, the narratives we construct about us are what matter the most. For example, on a whatsapp call, no one can see u cry is a seemingly abstract work where a new symbolic layer emerges upon reading the phrases written over the salvaged paper used as a support. These words outline the sort of talk one has when experiencing a rough patch in life. This narrative takes us yet to a new level after we read the title that speaks to our personal experiences with this messaging app that allows us to mask our real emotions as we see fit. Regardless if we are social media addicts or are against them, this type of work is extremely effective in triggering our own relationship with these tools.

Gregory Uzelac, on a whatsapp call, no one can see u cry, Acrylic, ink, pencil and pastel on salvaged paper, 19 x 17cm, 2020, Credit: David Akerman

All in all, Nice is Different than Good grants a refreshing look at pressing contemporary issues and it also brings a breeze of fresh air to Sydney´s contemporary art scene marking the Art Syndicate´s first contemporary art show. Even if Uzelac takes his symbolically charged stories rather seriously, he presents them in a playful and frequently irreverent fashion. These works open uncomfortable questions but avoid providing any answers. For this reason, some of us may skip altogether some of these questions or will be more drawn by some of them. Nonetheless, one thing is for sure: upon exiting this show you will end up remembering something or looking at our everyday interactions and obsessions through a new lens. This exhibition will be on view at The Art Syndicate until May 10th.

A short version of this review was published in SECAC ONLINE REVIEWS:

Constanza Ontiveros Valdés, has a Ph.D. in Art History. She frequently writes about art and culture, and is an avid researcher.