Uzzle Buzz: Mustang Girl

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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.

Marie Li is a student at Columbia University majoring in Art History and Business Management. During the summer of 2016, she was communications intern at the Ackland Art Museum.

Every year, as the sweet summer air creeps up on North Carolina with dragging feet, I am galvanized. Not by the thought of long days, crisp evenings, and cool drinks, but by the tantalizing promise of possibility. Like many other Americans, I commit myself anew to eating healthier, venturing outdoors, and exercising more often. And like it or not, this regiment centers on running outside (as opposed to on a treadmill, within an air-conditioned gym), and forcing my lungs to muddle and struggle through the dense, unforgiving humidity.

I discovered on a personal tour of his collection that, like me, Burk Uzzle also partakes in the occasional morning run. Unlike me, however, he brings his camera. And it was on one of these runs that Uzzle captured the “Mustang Girl,” in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Burk Uzzle, American, born 1938: Mustang Girl, St. Petersburg, FL, 2001, 2001; gelatin silver print. Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Anonymous Gift, 2008.3.52.

There is a visceral beauty, perhaps even an artfulness, to the drapery delicately cascading around the girl. I briefly entertained the idea that perhaps this girl was an artist herself, standing amidst her most recent mixed media piece. And yet, the lawn in the foreground combined with the unmistakable exterior of the house in the right background reminds us that we are witnessing an act of vandalism, a practical joke played on an unsuspecting suburban family. The Mustang Girl’s cool, defiant stare can be interpreted in any number of ways — is she daring the guilty party to come forth, in admittance of the crime? Or is she taking ownership of the act herself? Centering a pretty cheerleader against a backdrop of toilet paper heightens this dichotomy, a device which allows Uzzle to create his signature ironic humor, while also exacting his commentary on the American life, and the American aesthetic.

To me, many of Uzzle’s images evoke Surrealist tones, through their composition and content (for example, Mother and Child, Disney World, 1981, and Silver Smoke, Philadelphia, 1978). In decided contrast, there is always something tangible, authentic, and gritty about his photos, that plants them firmly in realism. Perhaps that is why Uzzle has become a forthright American photographer, and why this exhibition is aptly named “All About America” — he excels in capturing the surreal realities that inhibit and distort the American landscape.

—Marie Li