Uzzle Buzz: “American Culture Studies at its Best”

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“Uzzle Buzz” is a series of blog posts, written by various authors, that respond to or comment on some aspect of our exhibition All About America: Photographs by Burk Uzzle.

Townsend Ludington is Boshamer Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, of American Studies and English at UNC-Chapel Hill.

All About America: Photographs by Burk Uzzle, which opened at the Ackland Art Museum on June 24th, is one of the most provocative exhibitions the Museum has offered during the many years I have had the pleasure to live in Chapel Hill and teach at the university. “Provocative” in no way meaning salacious, but because—along with the fine catalogue of Uzzle’s photographs and an insightful essay by Professor Patricia Leighton—we learn so much about the art of photography.

Acland_2008.3.48, 7/23/14, 9:28 AM, 8C, 3476x4042 (552+1085), 58%, Feb'13, 1/25 s, R53.9, G26.0, B35.1

Burk Uzzle, American, born 1938: Family and Friends, Daytona Beach, FL, 1997, 1997. Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Anonymous Gift, 2008.3.48. © Burk Uzzle.

Uzzle rightly considers himself both artist and photographer; no one would challenge him. All 42 of the works on view display the visual acuity of a greatly talented professional; each has a narrative about some aspect of American life during the turbulent years 1968-2014. Ordered chronologically, the first photographs take us back into such monumental moments as the death of Martin Luther King and its aftermath; Woodstock; the Peace movement, and then—like Uzzle himself, it would seem—into a more elegiac mood in the last photographs.

But always there are counterpoints: that of young friends and raw sexuality in Family and Friends, Daytona Beach, FL, 1997 immediately preceding the pastoral, Huck Finn qualities of River Bank Dive, Georgia, 2001.

What appear to be trailers or a pre-fab home, framed within Greek columns that stand at the edge of a deserted, perhaps dirt road, and all this framed by several teetering telephone poles fading back into the distance. Wild Cat Ranch, Nevada, 2003 turns out to be a brothel. The picture is—I was about to say “vastly”—complex. It is about emptiness and loneliness (but sexuality when we know the Ranch is in fact a brothel). It puns on Greek art, “The Big Sky” of the West, hardly pastoral or romantic, and the lack of any meaningful communication. It is really about the isolation and emptiness that dominate contemporary art and literature in the forms of minimalism, abstraction, postmodernism, and so forth.

Burk Uzzle, American, born 1938: Wild Cat Ranch, Nevada, 2003, 2003; gelatin silver print. Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Anonymous Gift, 2008.3.49. © Burk Uzzle.

Lest anyone be dismayed by such as “Wild Cat Ranch,” however, he or she should turn last to the last, large, color photographs in the exhibition. Thematic “contradictions” are there: “Little Angel Field” where a green infield for Little League baseball sits amid huge electric structures in California; “Red Hamburgers” where a church is stuck off in the lower right corner behind a glitzy red hamburger sign in front of some commercial buildings; a “Barn with Deer” where the whole skin of a deer (with its head) droops over a rickety wire fence next to a mountain road; and a “Cabin with Basketball Goal” where a rusty basketball stanchion tilts slightly in front of an ancient but still lived-in cabin in the Carolina mountains.

So much to see and absorb! All About America is a cornucopia of Uzzle’s biography, American history, the techniques of photography, and the aesthetics of a talented artist. I’d call it “American Culture Studies” at its best.

—Townsend Ludington