Dallas-based artist Austin Uzor blends the figure and the Southwest landscape in oil paintings that challenge the boundaries of figurative painting.
There are many tributes to the Texas landscape, with its spacious sky and lush land. In Austin Uzor’s South Dallas studio, the landscape has unexpectedly stretched its way into his paintings.
Born and raised in Nigeria, Uzor moved to the United States in 2016 to attend the graduate program at the University of North Texas in Denton. The creative setting drove his fascination with the figure in a new direction.
Though Uzor is a prolific painter, his studio walls were mostly sparse during my visit, with many of his works on display at various galleries around the country. The natural light from his studio window dwindled as we talked about his artistic beginnings, middles, and upcomings.
At one point, Uzor asked me which work in particular I wanted to discuss, and while I could have selected a particular image, I mainly had an appreciation for how the work reconsiders time—how time felt nearly false in the actions of the work. Like a memory that’s both escaping and chasing itself and the bodily pause at the moment the landscape begins, without warning, to reshape the figure.
Laura Neal: What was your first instinct toward art or being an artist? What was the thing that made you want to create, that made you say “this is what I want to do”?
Austin Uzor: When I was around six, I encountered other kids drawing comics, and it was the first time I’d ever seen hand-drawn comic books, and I was like, “Whoa, what is that?” And the whole narration and storyboard got me hooked. It was this experience that offered an awareness that you could write and illustrate your own story. Before this, all the art I saw was industrialized or computer generated. It was not something I’d considered to be done by hand or by a human, so when I saw this hand-drawn comic book being passed around, I fell in love with it and wanted to do that. It was so basic and something I could relate to, so I made it my mission to do something similar. Since then, it has been my passion to discover how people can break down everyday visual stories into skilled interpretations.
LN: Thank you for sharing that story. As an artist living and working in the Southwest area, how does this geography impact your work, or does it impact it at all?
AU: I always think of my work as fluid. It can be one way today and go a different way tomorrow, but over time I find myself returning to certain themes, visuals, and imagery. In Dallas, the landscape is so flat that it disappears. It goes right into the sky and disappears into the horizon and it’s almost magical, and is taken for granted. My first show in New York City last October was titled Invisible Horizons due to the enormous presence of landscape in the work. I would try to fight it, but I could not win. The exhibition at the Rockport Arts Center has a similar title. There are twenty small paintings that began in abstraction and they all ended up as landscapes. I titled the show Windows for Forgotten Landscapes. So Texas plays a huge role in terms of geography in my most recent work.
LN: How do you see the role of the figure in your work, especially because it seems the figure differs between your drawing versus your painting?
AU: Yeah, there has been a progression over the years. As an undergraduate there’s always been this “thing” about the figure, so I found new ways to push those boundaries and re-establish my contribution to figurative expression. When I started with the ballpoint pen drawings I used the figure as a catalyst, but when the medium could no longer do what I wanted, I stopped. I am passionate about the figure, and a painting can go on for months, weeks, days because I’m making, pushing, and pulling to see how I can get new interpretations.
LN: Have you experimented with different media or are you curious about trying new materials?
AU: At first, I wanted to be a very traditional painter because I was striving to be like Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo, but that style and process became boring, especially representational art. The reason I went to grad school at UNT was to be involved in the contemporary art community and see how others are able to address situations with materials, concepts, and ideas. Recently, I’ve been open to experimenting with multiple materials and found a way to blend installation with painting. I use oil paint—sometimes I use acrylic—but oil paint has that soul in it. And I think of my studio as a lab where I try things out, where I find results.
LN: Is there an artist or piece of art that has influenced you in any particular way?
AU: I consume a lot of images on a daily basis that are very influential, so it’s hard to say, but there has been one artist at a period of time where I saw his work, and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It was Anselm Kiefer’s work. His works blow my mind, every single one of them. Most works I’ve seen, I outgrow over time, but Anselm Kiefer’s work is something that lingers.
LN: What do you want people to take away from your work?
AU: I’ve been building my visual vocabulary, things like learning color, experimenting color, experimenting with gesture expression, mark making, things that could narrow down the message, but what really matters is how people feel the work. As long as people can feel something from the work collectively, work that people want to return to multiple times, work that can open conversations.
LN: What’s next on your radar?
AU: This year, I’ve had five solo shows including one in London. I have some fairs that I’m participating in toward the end of the year and a tentative group show in Houston in September 2022. I will have a solo show in New York in 2023, but what’s been on my mind is creating a community exhibition. My studio is in South Dallas and I would like to create an exhibition that the community can participate in.
Austin Uzor’s exhibition Windows for Forgotten Landscapes is currently on view through September 18, 2022 at the Rockport Arts Center, 401 South Austin Street in Rockport, Texas.