Beauty & Chaos: The American Art of Santiago Uceda

Few artists have produced work that feels as urgently American to me in the way that Santiago Uceda’s does. He’s got a brash, expressionist style with bold inky lines and that blends of cultures and landscapes tracing his life journey from Peru to California and up to the Pacific Northwest. To me his work embodies the ambitious restlessness of all of us with immigrant roots. Go west and reinvent yourself. Shatter traditions, break rules and color outside the lines to create something new out of the open canvas made from the cultural jambalaya that is the soul of this country.

Uceda’s work shows the clear influence of pre-Colombian and Incan art. He spent his childhood in his native Peru before moving to the States with his family in middle school. Once he arrived in Southern California as a teenager, he absorbed stylistic elements from the surf and skate culture there, as well as a sense of folk art from the Mexican community, especially Día de Muertos imagery. Once he moved north to Oregon, he dove into the iconography of the Pacific Northwest, where a sort of fecund, mossy, drippiness steeped his work with towering pines and folkloric mythology from Sasquatches to salmon worked its way into his repertoire. He recently completed a cycle of images, one for each of the 50 states, that drew on state symbols, animals and regional characteristics. Flipping through Uceda’s work is like taking a great American road trip.

But what struck me the most in my recent interview with Uceda is the fact that, despite while I might see an urgent Americanness, he’s often felt like an outsider here. When he first arrived from Peru, he settled in conservative Orange County where some of the wealthy white kids made him feel like a second class citizen. “I remember thinking, ‘who the fuck to you think you are? Yeah, you’re a white kid, but how does that make you better than me?’,” Uceda said. And then, as now, Uceda used his art to channel his distinct voice in response.

Those high school feelings were rekindled with the election of Donald Trump and the way the current president talks about immigrants and people of color. Uceda had never been a political artist, but some of his latest work is fueled by a bold fury at the way the American Dream has been shattered. “My way of adding to the conversation is through visuals,” Uceda said.

If Trump’s election and the ensuing white nationalism embodied by the corrupt real estate mogul and his xenophobic followers pushed Uceda’s art in new directions, it’s his steady gig as art director at a Eugene, Oregon tech company that provided the stability and discipline that allowed him to strike out in new directions with his personal work. Uceda held a range of creative jobs through the years, often taking on commercial illustration projects where he was required to please clients rather than his own aesthetic sensibilities. But now having a steady job that requires enough creativity to keep him interested, but that also draws a clear line between his personal creative work, seems to have provided him with an ideal balance. The regular schedule and paycheck also provides the stability he needs as a single dad with two boys in school, so that he needs to be disciplined with free time that only comes after dinner, homework and time with the kids at night. Despite this disciplined routine, Uceda describes his style as “messy, rough and unpolished.” He used to worry that illustration clients wouldn’t appreciate these natural qualities of his work. “But I’m finally at the point where, it’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s what it is. It’s my style, my voice, take it or leave it,'” he said.

A retrospective of his sketchbook work was recently held at Sparrow Studios and Revolution Design Group in Eugene. For Uceda, the exhibit felt a little like baring his soul. His topics in his sketch work often include personal challenges and documentation of his struggles with mental health. In the past he was hesitant to showcase vulnerabilities in this way, but as he’s grown as an artist he’s become more willing to be transparent. “Lately I’ve been trying to care less about this and give less fucks about stuff as I’m getting older,” Uceda said. And his work has seemed to soar as a result. And the packed opening of this screening this past September gave evidence as crowds responded to his work and lined up to buy sketches from old journals that he once thought would never see the light of day.

Uceda’s passion is illustration, making a mess with chalk and ink, cutting stencils into his sketchbook pages to make random compositions with the illustrations underneath. But he’s also a versatile dilettante, unafraid to dabble in digital, motion graphics, animation, stop motion, video editing and sound design. Some of his online work is a lucidly chaotic mix of all of these abilities. But once you’ve spent time with his art, you can always find the distinctive thumbprint of his style, whether it’s a sketch or an online animation or a two-story mural, and in those bold lines and colors you can also see the telltale signature of the journey he’s made during his own quest to find the American Dream that may elude all of us during these chaotic times.

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