Watermelon, oil, 7 3/4 x 17.
By Dottie Indyke
Jeff Uffelman sits me down at his kitchen table and then ambles off to his adjoining studio. “I’m getting a bottle of Perrier,” he calls. “It’ll look nice on the table, and the motion of the bubbles will keep you occupied.”
So goes Uffelman’s capricious approach to the world. If you didn’t know better, you might take this tall, striking man for the serious sort, one who perhaps has a dark streak. And in one way you would be right; Uffelman has a decidedly offbeat edge and a sense of humor so dry it nearly crackles. A master of realism and the still-life genre, he refuses to play it straight in his paintings, choosing instead to bend the truth by distorting scale and juxtaposing dichotomous elements.
Cucumbers, oil, 3 x 30.
When he moved to Santa Fe in 1990, Uffelman was impressed with not only the area’s legendary crystalline skies but also what he saw as the width of the landscape. Taking a cue from the east-west expanse, he’d drop a dozen lemons on a table, shine a spotlight on them, and paint the random line-up in a long, narrow format. For the artist, these paintings are studies in relationships and the visual effects of a single light source.
Eggs and Tin Cup, oil, 8 1/4 x 9.
However, the artificial light he trained on his subjects never quite achieved the intensity he sought. So Uffelman moved outside. Sketching with colored pencils in the sharply slanted, warm light of sunrise and sunset, his eggs, fruits, and vegetables took on rosy pink accents and deep blue shadows. The backgrounds of his paintings changed from the pitch-black inspired by Dutch masters like Adriaen Corte to cloud-studded skies and adobe brown dirt. And his subject—whether a wedge of watermelon or a group of eggs nestled in a cup—took on exaggerated size. The topsy-turvy effect, in which the object eclipses the landscape, is the artist’s impressionistic stamp on still life.
“All my paintings are like group photos,” Uffelman says about the human aspect of his work. “The wide ones are like baseball teams or sorority girls getting their picture taken, all with different expressions. The chiles are like bodies, like old master paintings of groups of figures lying down. The little round fruits are like tight shots of heads.”
Three Lemons, oil, 6 1/4 x 15.
Uffelman’s ability to realistically render the world is unquestionable and remarkable. Watermelons drip with juice, and eggshells appear thin and luminous. Lemon skins are subtly pockmarked; chiles shine as if polished. It takes the artist untold hours of concentrated observation and attention to detail to make a single piece. “It’s got a lot of potential to drive you crazy,” he says of the meticulousness his work requires. “If you don’t fill in all the details, it’s not as impressive or as satisfying. So if I don’t have a fair amount of verisimilitude, I get irritated.”
As if to prove his obsessiveness, he removes two plastic boxes from the freezer and lifts the covers to reveal perfectly organized rows of pre-mixed paint dollops, sorted by color: shades of yellow, followed by orange and red and so on. “It’s a way to have the paint ready to go when I first wake up in the morning,” Uffelman says with a wry smile, an indication that he knows how fanatical his habits are. “I’m Oscar Madison and Felix Unger all at the same time.”
The spontaneous Madison, of television’s “Odd Couple” fame, shows up in an Uffelman painting-in-process. Propped on an easel in his horse stable-turned-studio, the piece depicts a table decorated with a potato, tomato, carrot, and toy airplane. The airplane would be surprising enough on its own, but in the as-yet-unpainted background, the artist has graffitied an upside-down house and a flying car.
I was slicing cucumbers for a salad,” Uffelman says, deadpan, describing an idea for a future painting. “I had a whole pile of them. They were like columns—some standing and some lying down like a cuco-Roman ruin.” He grins.
It seems Uffelman never tires of fruits and vegetables. There’s always more to see, he says, and besides, he doesn’t like the savagery of dead fish or poultry draped on a nice white tablecloth. Live models, for their part, seem uncomfortable as they strike their various poses, and that makes him nervous. “Fruit is happy to lay there and do its thing,” he explains. “Still lifes are private; you don’t have to have people around. They’re your own world.”
His latest completed painting illustrates a row of lemons and eggs. Perhaps 2 feet long and 4 inches tall, it sits gleaming on a table top. I guess that it is acrylic, but I am not quite right. The surface is oil atop layers of acrylic, which the artist likes because it is fast-drying and absorbent. As many as 20 coats of rich varnish finish the piece. Uffelman makes his own frames out of gesso, burnishing clay, and gold leaf. The paintings are not to his liking without these frames.
Uffelman was born in 1950 in York, PA. Like many creative people he started young, “smooshing the paint around and mostly making abstracts.” At an early age he was intrigued by the possibility of making a living as an artist. He remembers admiring Picasso and Dali not for their style or content, which he says he probably didn’t understand, but for the concept that art was their job.
Uffelman’s father didn’t take kindly to his son’s penchant for art, though. “He’d get grumpy whenever I did art at home,” Uffelman says. “He thought I should be more macho, that I should be thinking about growing up, becoming a salesman, and making a lot of money.”
But from the start Uffelman was a rebel. At age 7, he sold his first painting to his uncle for $35. In high school he had a devoted collector who eagerly snapped up his canvases. Meanwhile, he took every art class his high school offered. When he craved more, the teachers would put him in the back of the room and let him create his own projects. “I could draw things very well, but serious drawing wasn’t funny enough,” he recalls. “Everything I drew ended up being cartoonlike.”
By age 18, he was trading expert sketches on napkins for food and drink at local bars. His high school teachers recommended he attend art school, but Uffelman went along with his peers, enrolling at the local community college. To earn money, he hauled equipment for drummer Buddy Rich and worked as a draftsman. One job required him to render electrical equipment so that it could be fabricated. Ever obsessed and seeking to entertain himself, Uffelman drove his employers to distraction by painstakingly adding shadows to the drawings.
He married for the first time when he was 27. Like his father, Uffelman’s wife disdained art as a losing occupation and insisted he study architecture instead. Uffelman found the work painfully monotonous. He chucked his career and his marriage on the same day and enrolled in art school, where he found a rich laboratory for his pent-up creativity. One figure-drawing course he took was conducted by candlelight to replicate the conditions of the old European masters. In another class, Uffelman made a conceptual art piece consisting of dozens of cans soldered together—each with a perfectly realistic rendering, right down to the minuscule list of ingredients, of a generic dog-food label. And one instructor passed along his passion for the subtlety, shading, light, and color of still lifes to his eager young student.
Despite his attraction to still lifes, Uffelman was influenced by the art trend of the times to make abstracts. His artwork won awards and was exhibited in nearby Pennsylvania galleries, but he found that he was compelled to occasionally insert a fish or some other realistic object into his pieces. “Then I got nervous that I didn’t know how to render, so I switched to very surrealistic, dreamlike montages,” Uffelman says. Ultimately, he realized these constant changes in style were slowing the progress of his career.
Shortly after his move to Santa Fe, he entered a small portrait of leeks against a backdrop of black-and-white mountains in a Museum of Fine Arts-sponsored still-life competition. Once and for all, Uffelman asserted his quirky, contemporary viewpoint on the classic genre. He has been garnering accolades ever since.
“As a kid, I’d look at tree bark for 10 minutes and I’d think, ‘Someday I want a job that lets me look at tree bark for as long as I want,’” Uffelman comments. “We fly past stuff faster than ever these days. It seems like a really nice example of resistance to sit and stare for longer than anyone has time. It’s my rebellion against things that go too fast.”
Photos courtesy the artist and LewAllen Contemporary, Santa Fe, NM.
Featured in January 2001