A Conversation with Henrik Uldalen - whynow

A Conversation with  Henrik Uldalen

I met Henrik Uldalen at a time of transition. The artist’s figurative, ethereal paintings are distorted through impasto brushwork that obscures his subject’s bodies. His aim for the last 13 years has been a constant self-taught search for beauty, attempting to harness the tools of aesthetics to depict it, mastering his craft, and now… he doesn’t care? whynow finds out more.

The ability to shift focus is an exciting aspect of any artist’s career, that they can do it radically and totally, towards a new subject, a new medium, a new way to express themselves. Henrik Uldalen has been unchangingly dealing with existentialism on a muted, Scandinavian palette. It surprises people to discover he’s Asian, born in South Korea and adopted in Norway. He has lived in Mexico, Florence, Barcelona and, currently, London. Henrik stays true to the feelings of existentialism and nostalgia that he wants to project onto the work.

So, it was a surprise when I walked into his studio to find it populated by wooden sculpture attempts and abstract works on large canvases that climbed the walls up to the double height ceiling. The abstracts are just sketches, he tells me, but they couldn’t have been done smaller with the feeling he was attempting to capture.

What are these abstracts about, then?

I’m trying to harness the uncontrollable; splashing turps on things, using brushes that are way too long and way too flimsy, so I can’t control it as well as I would normally.

12, 13 years of full-time painting has given me a lot of control, and now I’m realising the more I control the less free I feel, it becomes stiff. 10 years ago, [my practice] was super academic.

With that fabled Picasso quote rattling in my head as Henrik tells me this, the one that goes “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child,” I asked whether at a certain point of mastery, artists always want to break free of their technical skill.

For most people who are mastering their medium, the moment you feel like you’ve mastered it is only going to keep you excited for a certain amount of time. I’m looking at other people’s paintings now and unimpressed because I know how it’s done. Once I know the alphabet, I can start writing poetry. I have a long way to go, I feel like I’m just starting that journey now, it’s exciting.

Was this always going to happen? Henrik’s art looks as if it is always threatening to break into abstraction, with hands and faces disappearing into fading brushstrokes and portraits exploding into textured thick paint.

I don’t feel like I was destined for it. For me, it was making the perfect representation of beauty, using all the tools in aesthetics to create something that was the ultimate of beauty, and I don’t care about that at all now, that was my path.

It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child

Pablo Picasso


He was briefly disdainful of art students becoming homogenised through schooling, singing the praises of his lack of education, and therefore, lack of diverting influence.

I know a lot of students and all their stance in art is completely different, but [at school] they align at some point and become the same. Being self-taught, I’m glad I didn’t have that influence.

I’ve spoken to a lot of self-taught artists, and I sometimes think this fact is unduly held up as a uniquely special aspect of their success. I asked whether it had made any difference at all to his trajectory.

I don’t really think it’s that different. If you’re interested in something and dive into it, you’re going to learn a lot.

Being by yourself, you might end up being more specific and specialised, when with an academy you’ll try everything. I think it’s probably helped me a lot, but it’s not for everyone. It hasn’t been more difficult, it’s been freeing. I wanted to study but couldn’t get in!

Trawling through previous interviews and reviews of Henrik’s work, I came across a statement of his where he proclaimed that he was an ‘expressionist trapped in the body of a neo-classicist’, how did this figure with his new direction in mind?

It is because I started out loving neo-classicism and academic art, still do, but this is not how I want to make art, not the things I want to express. The last two years I’ve been trying to loosen up, shake off the academic ways, unconcerned with being a purist.

Now I will slap some texture on the canvas, pour some stuff on it, come the next day put it on fire, it’s been fun. I’m all about painting how I feel, these abstract concepts are difficult to fit into representation.

For a long time, I tried to make it work by saying this is the closest I will come to my abstract feelings, by showing this very representational work, but at some point you have to say it doesn’t really work. Making something abstract makes more sense because it is already an abstract thought.”

Henrik’s bodies are being sacrificed to give way to pure feeling. This is a turning point for Henrik’s visual language, a significant step towards representing pure abstract feeling.

Rampa  They Will Be