Photography Nick Sethi
By Folasade Ologundudu
You've certainly seen fire hydrants, construction cones, and rubber tires before—but none quite like the ones in Stewart Uoo's latest show, "used," at 47 Canal. Installed in the gallery is a slice of New York City streetscape: a dull gray cement sidewalk, atop which stand light poles and assorted street objects, in colors that suggest an alternate reality just beyond our own. Uoo's hollow-cast recreations are intimately nostalgic yet alien in their shiny, lustrous, and opaque finishes and pastel hues. Straddling alienation and the familiarity of city life in a pandemic, the sculptures contemplate euphoria and isolation. "This project was in response to a period of my life where who I was or what my interests were was starting to shift," the 35-year-old artist explains. "The exhibition started with me trying to see what intuitively and authentically made me happy or was generative of joy."
Uoo's first show at 47 Canal, which took place nearly a decade ago, featured bionic mannequins that explored fashion and digital technology. While those earlier works took cues from queer nightlife and the absurdity of consumerism, this new series strikes a somewhat more personal note. As a way of channeling his own past, Uoo affixed Ginkgo leaves to the surface of several of the works. In American Cheese Weekend (2021) [pictured], for instance, the artist meticulously arranged pressed painted leaves on a golden-yellow piece of salvaged cardboard. Upon close inspection, the silhouette of each leaf is visible. But, from afar, that orderliness lends itself to a transfixing, unequivocally abstract effect. Growing up, Uoo's mother would forage for the edible plants in their California neighborhood; she would pack them in his suitcase as an adult. The pungent berries left a lingering scent that remains noticeable even at a distance. "Whenever the tree was fruiting, people would gag from the smell," Uoo recalls.
Although they make reference to memory, the sculptures also evoke the strangeness of the current moment. Many of the recreated objects were things Uoo spotted while biking through the city. Disenchanted with the deterioration of New York life—from overwrought gentrification to the commodification of every aspect of life thanks to social media—Uoo recoiled at a world almost utterly unfamiliar yet quietly recognizable. But ultimately, the artist seems optimistic about the future. "I'm curious how cities will rebuild post-2020," Uoo says. "How will alternative models and radical imagining manifest? How will we show up now that we've had this opportunity to re-evaluate value in our lives?"
FOLASADE OLOGUNDUDU: Where are you from, and when did art first come into your life?
STEWART UOO: I grew up in Northern California. I was basically always into art since a really early age. I was able to go to some high school programs and those made me more aware of how to take art more seriously. I went to an arts college that was a four-year program in the painting and drawing department in the Bay Area. It was really formative—I had the opportunity to be as embarrassing as possible.
OLOGUNDUDU: After graduation from California College of Arts in 2007, you went on to attend the Städelschule in Frankfurt, Germany. Can you talk about that experience?
UOO: At 23 years old, I think I was one of the youngest students at that time. It felt like everyone was a lot more career-minded and had a completely different approach. Europe has a different education and funding model for the arts; there is more social support and a certain civic respect for artists in society. I was still coming from a place where you just make terrible work in school as a strategy for maximum growth.
OLOGUNDUDU: Right, so, you were experimenting?
UOO: Exactly. And I still do that. I still essentially carry that on to the exhibition. Often, people are like, "Your exhibitions always look different." But, to me, they don't really feel so different because they're conceptually coming from the same place: staying curious and trying to ask specific questions visually.
OLOGUNDUDU: I want to switch gears a little and move to your work with 47 Canal. How did your relationship with the gallery come about?
UOO: I met Margaret, who is one of the founders of 47 Canal, as an undergraduate. Then, in that period—when I was working between Germany and New York City—I reached out to her to see if she knew of any art-related things I could do. I'd basically help her out with whatever projects she was working on. At that time she [had] started 179 Canal, which was the proto-project space to 47 Canal. She included me in some of my first group shows. She then invited me to present my first solo exhibition at the gallery, "Life is Juicy" (2012).
OLOGUNDUDU: In this current exhibition, can you speak a little bit about what you're working through?
UOO: It was kind of in response to a period in my life. I was at the end of my 20s, going into my 30s. A lot of things that were inspiring to me—like my sense of community; discovering who I was; what my interests were—were starting to shift. I was settling into a different part of who I was, but I wasn't conscious of it. The way I approach art is a lot more about actively gathering, consuming research in my own idiosyncratic way: through conversations, reading, walking around, just living.
OLOGUNDUDU: Elaborating on the materials used in this show, I'm curious about the pieces. How are the objects cast?
UOO: The commercial term for the material is Aquaresin, but it's essentially a gypsum compound. Basically, it's a kind of plaster, but much more durable. I like it because it's non-toxic. With the objects, I knew I was interested in the inevitable pathways of how people move and navigate. I was thinking about sculptures and public places, having spent considerable time outside riding my bike just seeing different parts of Brooklyn. I cast the objects from the street, and then for the surface treatment, I was thinking of other materials from outside, such as pigeon feathers. I've always been very attracted to the plumage.
When fall arrived, I was reminded of yellow Ginkgo leaves. I noticed young trees are being planted near new developments. I've always appreciated their aesthetic beauty. One of my favorite drawings is by Ellsworth Kelly. [It depicts] an outline of two Ginkgo leaves, side by side. My mom comes from the countryside of South Korea. Within Napa, she still forages for edible weeds and fruiting trees that are culturally specific, so it was interesting to reflect on the parallels of foraging and psychogeography.
OLOGUNDUDU: What is the significance of the concrete cement sidewalk?
UOO: The sidewalk is generic enough for me that everyone has a very similar kind of relationship to it. And I appreciate how the grid also creates compositional order. But for me, it's a reminder of how one navigates the grid within the city.
OLOGUNDUDU: Is there anything, in particular, you're hoping people take away from this show?
UOO: I want to feel a connection, that we are interconnected. That, in turn, makes me feel less alone and together with everyone else.
Published: March 15, 2021