Dug Uyesaka is a central force on the Santa Barbara art scene, and his solo exhibition long story short at Westmont’s Ridley-Tree Museum of Art is a milestone epitomizing the contemporary artist’s response to a sensationalized commercial culture. Known primarily for his work as an assemblage artist with a Rauschenberg-ian approach to subject and material, Uyesaka becomes more free-flowing when he distills his assemblage-driven works onto paper, playing inventively with typography and line.
This Westmont show captures his evolution as an artist and offers a compelling personal storyline, as well. While Uyesaka’s journey to becoming an artist and living in Santa Barbara follows the familiar American path of assimilation, it also reflects the notion of being “othered” in a very tangible way. As part of a Japanese-American family that experienced the trauma and injustice of internment during World War II, Uyesaka bears scars at his roots. The show — which spans more than 40 years of the artist’s career — includes early, openly political works such as “executive order 9066,” which illustrates a personal process of catharsis. Looking more closely, one sees that the majority of his later work responds to the complexities of the past, but due to his highly optimistic nature, this political side of Uyesaka’s “long story” is often less obvious at first glance.
Subculture-influenced typography frames narrative moments throughout the show, and the materials, which are largely happened upon organically or given to him by friends, create a visual feast that lets us see beyond Uyesaka’s signature eye for relativity and design. In the collage “Cover of EYE artist portfolio magazine circa 1980s,” hot-pink graffiti and ink droplets act as imposter poster board for masking-taped snapshots of sexual transgressions. At once eye-catching and racy, the work balances the electric charge of its subject matter with a stroke of irony, as Uyesaka employs a traditional Asian-calligraphy approach to ink the magazine’s title, EYE.
Two untitled collages from 2011 and 2015 play specifically to the audience of a post-pop art world. With his trove of Mad magazines and his calligraphic skills, Uyesaka bounces between a painterly approach and a dreamlike dazed-and-confused state. Major installations such as “the bride stripped bare” and “soft boom” seem to explore a long-forgotten dream of being a scientist, while suspended audio CDs and trumpets suggest the presence of musicians poised above the museum’s open floorplan. Through this expansive mid-career retrospective, one travels alongside Uyesaka as he imagines himself as something other than an artist; he muses on these alternatives, considering their processes and purposes, and then rounds the bend back to the reality of his life of creativity.
In the end, a sense of serene optimism shines through long story short, thus placing Uyesaka’s work firmly within a tradition that includes many Santa Barbara–based contemporary artists. This inner sense of balance reaches a high point with “float — painting on board” (2007), a mixed-media composition that features a hand grenade neutralized by small halo-like washers in white that offset the weapon with an equally energized moment of calm. As is so often the case with Uyesaka’s art, “float — painting on board” shows both bittersweet sides of a single gilded coin.
Dug Uyesaka’s long story short runs through January 14 at the Westmont College Ridley-Tree Museum of Art (955 La Paz Rd.). Call (805) 565-6162 or see westmontmuseum.org.