Examining the Anthropocene in D.C: Eric Uhlir, November Featured Artist
Eric Uhlir’s latest commission, a massive 85 x 100 inch painting for Deloitte, leaned up against the wall in his sunlit, plant-filled studio at 52 O Street Studios as we discussed his recent work. The painting is slated to be installed early December in the executive lobby on the 10th floor of Deloitte’s Rosslyn building. The layered, swirling, primary-colored brush strokes coalesce into a few recognizable figures and symbols: the American flag, the statue of Freedom, and the Capitol dome. Uhlir’s style of semi-abstraction, however, intentionally denies the viewer from discerning any clear meaning. How does one perceive the group of people surrounding the dome: are they brave patriots following in the footsteps of the American Revolution, or are they radical terrorists destroying democracy as we know it?
Uhlir next to his recently finished 85x100" commission for Deloitte.
The commission came at a fortuitous time for Uhlir. After January 6th, the painter began working on a series exploring themes of political tension from early American history. While many artists have grappled with the implications and consequences from the 6th, the day holds even more significance for DC artists like Uhlir, who was working in his studio less than two miles away from the Capitol when news broke of the event. Since then, Uhlir has been drawn to themes from colonial era history painting, re-interpreting scenes like the Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Through this work, Uhlir raises several important questions: how is history shaped by the winners? How do we understand the history of American revolution and revolt in the context of today’s world? Early American art elevates participants in scenes like the Boston Tea Party, for example, as heroes, whereas in their time they were basically “vigilante thugs,” as Uhlir puts it. For Uhlir, thinking about the giant paintings of Copley or Trumbull was a way to pick apart the role of artists and artworks in making and maintaining certain narratives – and consequently what happens when these narratives are questioned.
Thus, the commission, with its key American themes, allowed Uhlir to explore these same ideas using more overt imagery than he typically does due to the specifications of the commission. “I was fascinated by what those symbols mean, and how we use those symbols to tell ourselves different narratives,” he said. Among the more recognizable figures is an African-American figure in the center, holding his hand in the traditional gesture of oration. Uhlir calls the figure the storyteller, opening up possibilities for new stories and perspectives about traditional American symbols. “It all sort of culminates in what you want out of freedom. What does freedom at the top of all of this represent to you?”
Examining the Anthropocene: Change over Time
Another strong theme throughout Uhlir’s oeuvre is the notion of change over time, which he believes humans are decidedly bad at recognizing. Along with introducing formal issues about how to represent time in a painting, for him change over time also provides a focused lens from which to examine the impact of humans on the natural world. Uhlir described a moment from when he was a child when this idea first struck him:
"I was in elementary school, and I was looking at this photograph in the main office, and it was this picture of when the school was built in the early 70’s, and I realized that it was a picture of my school but none of the neighborhoods that I grew up with were in the picture. It was like totally open land as far as the eye could see. And even as I got older, it just kept growing. It just doesn’t stop."
For Uhlir, the unstoppable tide of urban sprawl was an example of how ambition can blind humans to seeing any consequences. Why do people keep expanding and try to conquer nature? Why haven’t we learned any lessons from the past? Perhaps most critically: how can this be represented through art?
Uhlir explored this idea in a previous show with Homme gallery (also a 52 O Street community member) titled Eudaimonia, which interrogated the notion of intrinsic virtue. Melding animal and human figures in his semi-abstract style, Uhlir compared ideas of brutality in the animal kingdom and in the human world, weighing the roles of nature, nurture, consciousness and ethics. In another previous series, Uhlir worked with the idea of Arcadian virtue, thinking about landscape design and the human desire to create utopia by manipulating the natural world.
What unites Uhlir’s past work with his current series and the Deloitte commission is a fascination with humans. On his website, Uhlir explains that he “examines the anthropocene in the context of art history.” His attention to art history is clear; Uhlir showed me his bookshelf packed with his collection of rare and interesting art books. Among his influences is Cecily Brown, whom Uhlir credits with inspiring him to develop his current style. From Brown, Uhlir saw the possibilities of working in layers, in a constant additive and reductive process that simultaneously destroys and builds upon what came before.
In terms of the anthropocene, Uhlir's work asks the viewer to consider the historical role of humans in shaping the natural and political world, and further, to what extent our actions are proper, ethical, necessary or harmful. Many of these questions about history and narrative come down to philosophical notions of choice and the nature of consciousness. Uhlir shared that he took a few courses in consciousness theory: “It’s complicated, but… it’s a hell of a lot more interesting to explore in paint than a lot of other things are.”
Uhlir's third floor studio at 52 O Street Studios
Washington, D.C. and its Art Community
Immediately obvious is that Uhlir's large works have a commanding physical presence. The larger the work, the more an artwork physically confronts the viewer, forcing them to reckon with the painting as an experience rather than an object. Uhlir says he would love to work larger – on the scale of Tintoretto. We discussed artists like Alex Katz and Amy Sherald, whose figures at larger-than-human scale are mesmerizing, off-putting, and encourages a viewer's meditation on their own humanity. The increased use of social media – which Uhlir uses as the primary way of advertising and selling his work – also changes the way viewers interact with the work, especially by removing any notion of scale. For this reason Uhlir tries to take advantage of videos and close-ups to allow the viewer to get a sense of the work, even through a phone screen. Despite its challenges, Uhlir has had success with sharing his work on Instagram; he recently sent off a painting to a collector in Switzerland, who had found Uhlir's work through the app.
Uhlir uses Instagram partly because of a lack of galleries in D.C. compared to other cities. Raised in LA and educated in Austin, Uhlir still expresses a fondness for the nation's capital: “The people I meet here are much more interesting than in Austin [...] in D.C. it feels like the stakes are higher, like things matter here.” As an artist concerned with history, politics, and narrative, Uhlir fits with D.C. Being within walking distance to the National Gallery of Art doesn’t hurt, either.
Making art is often a solitary profession; Uhlir spends most of his day alone in the studio with the company of his dog Violet. Still, having spaces for artists to work, gather, and exhange ideas is key for enriching the cultural life of any community. Uhlir says of his space in 52 O Street Studios: “This is the best studio I’ve had, far and away. I don’t know what I would do without it; my practice certainly wouldn’t be where it is.”
Uhlir in the studio with is dog, Violet