Thursday, November 24, 2011

Homeless in the World of Harry Underwood

The Lindsay Gallery in Columbus ( is currently featuring the work of Harry Underwood, a self-trained artist whose work reflects the influence of popular and advertising culture, but little from the world of fine art. Underwood's works have a look reminiscent of tinted post cards from a by-gone era; of advertising enticements to visit or to buy property in Florida; of smiling satisfaction amidst Good Life artifacts: pools, green lawns, and vacation get-aways. Underwood has worked as a manual laborer. In his paintings, he continues to do so, but as one who dreams on the job.
The Orange Flame Vine of Florida., 35 x 48. Courtesy, the Lindsay Gallery
To anyone in shooting distance of Columbus, I heartily recommend seeing this show since the collection of work casts a particular spell. Each piece is fascinating, but Harry (as he signs himself) invokes a universe that  exists in a zone between memory, wishfulness, and the geography of Florida and Tennessee. The aggregation of work brings this alive.

knot to left of man's shoulder; wood
underlayer represents hair, man's body,
woman's body
Harry's fundamental outlook and the basis of his story are found in the choice and use of his materials. He works on plywood of the better sort, the kind used to face kitchen cabinets. Nevertheless, in several of the paintings, knots and other blemishes erupt through the painted surface. Harry makes use of the wood as a compositional element too, as he loves to  play with negative space. Instead of vacancy's taking the form of white, it is represented in the warm tone of varnished, grained wood.

Harry's method is to draw his design (the cartoon, as it were) on the wood with mechanical pencil, which not only leaves graphite lines, but slightly incises them too. Then he paints "inside the lines" with house paint, producing the characteristic flat shapes with no nuance. Any unpainted area exposes the wood and sometimes shows those precisely mapped pencil markings. If we take the painted surface to be the simplest representation of "reality," then the frequent appearance of the laid-out plan—the fundamental artifice—reminds us how very close "reality" and illusion are in this work. There's little that separates the surface representation from the artist's plan, below. All that stands between is a little casually-applied paint.

Watson Song Trio. Courtesy, the Lindsay Gallery.

Paint adds color and  substance, but it also allows Harry to investigate the negative space. In this detail from Watson Song Trio, he does his by implying erasure, leaving "ghost" areas (thinly painted layers) around the women's images. More usually, he simply leaves blanks, as in My Permanent Daydream, below. The places he has not painted have a variety of pictorial meanings that heighten the unsettling sense of "daydream." For instance, the trunks of the palmettos are left natural: they are, after all, wood. Hair is not painted. It contrasts with skin and, in this visual context, looks the color of sun-bleached brown hair. But the windows of the house? Are they represented as open because they aren't painted in? Or are they boarded up, as I find it almost impossible not to see them. What's left out in this scene is more telling than what's applied.

My Permanent Daydream. Courtesy, the Lindsay Gallery.
A detail from West Dixie Highway illustrates several ways Harry uses negative space. As he often does, he defines the eyes by "blankness." Though it's hard to detect in this image, the eyes are unpainted areas. He's used the wood background to define "positively" the hair, handlebars, and part of the bicycles' structure. But notice the way that the green cycle's rider, even where painted, reveals the underlying drawing for the structure of the house behind her. Not only is her hair defined by negative space, but she becomes negative space herself, a ghostly form through whom we can peer. She's a fantasy--as if she were merely a thinly painted figure on wood!
West Dixie Highway, detail. Courtesy, the Lindsay Gallery.
The more I examine Harry's works, the less they seem like paintings in the simple, traditional sense. The paint is used in a matter-of-fact way, unmixed, to distinguish one area from another for visual reference. Harry manifests no interest in paint as a fascinating material that he uses with skill. To the contrary, he employs the grossest form of the medium, one designed merely for coverage, and he applies it with little apparent concern for details such as control of edge, or evenness of application. Its more important functions seems to be to provide a positive to negative space, and to create a smooth surface upon which he can write. For text is as essential to Harry's work as image is, and he demonstrates more concentrated attention on lettering and ersatz calligraphy than he does on other artistic features of the work.

These details from Flame Vine of Florida show Harry's attention to letter forms. "The calligraphy" across the top is particularly painstaking because it wasn't made by smooth strokes of a pen, but by imitations in pencil. Harry would have had to outline these shapes and filled them in, just as he does his figures with paint. The difference is that these letter forms contain hundreds of tiny, carefully executed marks. The smaller detail shot of words at the bottom of the painting shows his combination of lettering and script. The script is, again, a pencil imitation of Roundhand script's combination of thin and thick elements. His lettering is like a typeface, with serifs and some distinction in the width of elements.

In his choices of materials and methods, Harry literally provides the structure that upholds, and the frame that sets off, the world he pictures. His vision, like the fabric of his work, depends on a contrast between the highly generalized and the minutely specified. His work, viewed from across the room, tells stories that involve an idyllic, palm-peppered Florida of tourist motels, turquoise swimming pools, and a good life for people who wear shorts and tend the lawns of their bungalows. Harry's show at the Lindsay Gallery highlights the public dream, as advertised, in vacationland. Yet there's the built-in, central irony that some people live their real lives in vacationland.

Cares of Everyday. Courtesy, the Lindsay Gallery. NB: sign in window of house reads,
"So Sorry."
For those people-for Harry, represented by a figure who appears in Drive Away the Cares of Every Day, My Permanent Daydream, and Waymark--there is the problem of privacy and interiority. Those can be seen, however, only on close inspection, for privacy exists largely in thoughts that the viewer may not even notice, since they are reported in the small text fastidiously written across the surfaces. Through text, Harry allows us into that private world of house and garden filled with hopes, dreams, memories, associations--a world as shifting and unpredictable as the outer, public world is highly composed and orderly-at least when seen from a distance, with little detail.

Waymark, 31 x 38. Courtesy, the Lindsay Gallery.
Even the placement of the grandest text is off-kilter. The headlines for The [absent] Orange Flame Vine of Florida take a stab at formal composition but get lost and lopsided in the attempt. The Watson Song Trio appears perfectly placed until the line proves too short and the words are shuffled onto another as an afterthought. In this painting, as in most, he labels each anonymous-faced person with that name that gives it individuality, at least to him. In Waymark, Jimmy receives a comment below his name: "These cowboy boots were a good value and attract many kind compliments." The man walking in from the right, facing the the others who look the opposite direction, is named Harry. Since he is looking down, faces would be as blank to him as they are to us. Floor-gazers notice boots, though. Maybe those are Harry's boots, remembered?

The text in the upper left corner of Waymark reads, "Do not 'Shilly,' and do not 'Shally.' Here is your very own opportunity to dine and be received at Camelot. In the hot sandwich hemisphere! Passengers arriving would prefer meals at home, but home is far away." In smaller script, across the top of the southbound departures board, Harry has written, the droll observation that, "In the face of all that is impermanent we still find the time to go on vacations."

No one has a suitcase in this picture, despite the fact that only departures are listed. The text is ambiguous: We want to dine at home, but home is far away; still, it requires travel-a "vacation"-to achieve the Camelot of our desire. Are these people without baggage waiting for a bus? Or do they welcome the returning traveler, Harry, who enters the picture? Perhaps he is coming home to Camelot. Perhaps this sad Harry feels alienated by all the promise of home's enchantment; by the conflicting claims that home and Camelot and vacationland turn out to be the same place.
West Dixie Highway, 23 x 27. Courtesy, the Lindsay Gallery
Coming and going-transcience-is a theme inherent throughout the Lindsay Gallery show, whether or not transportation is explicitly pictured. West Dixie Highway shows us two girls happily riding their bikes out of the frame  and in Cares of Every Day, Harry stands with his bicycle, potentially ready to go. A portrait of a bicycle, Columbians, that I have not shown here, testifies to his interest in this venerable means of transport and escape (see his website for the five-painting bicycle series:

Harry's many depictions of motels, of which Orange Flame Vine is but one, remind us of transience. But his composition of nearly every work places permanence into an aching relationship with transience, giving rise to the sense of loss and longing that pervade this world. In Supermarket, for instance, the very solid supermarket moves into the picture like the engine of an oncoming train and the man, who could very well be simply a small-town idler, could equally be waiting for a Coming of some sort. That the name of the market is cut off, leaving only "'far," adds to the sense cautious anticipation in a portentous setting.
Supermarket, 24 x31. Courtesy of the Lindsay Gallery.
The smudgy text, however, keeps the expectations low and childlike: "I'm happy at the Supermarket. Ingrediants [sic] and clean packages of food. Everything is fresh and organized. One time in nineteen eighty six, my wallet was taken from my car in the woods. When someone found it, they brought it to my mother at the supermarket. Supermarkets are repositories of conveniance [sic] and sweet drinks are sold there." Is the man remembering childhood? Is he the child, still waiting for something more to happen? Does he know what to hope or watch for, stuck permanently in a wish to move on?

Standing in the middle of the Lindsay Gallery, surrounded by Harry's work, it feels more natural to feel that Harry has created a tableau than a series of paintings. Everything around the viewer adds up to a town: There's the shoe store, the gas station, supermarket, motels, houses with yards and swimming pools. There are the bus station, the lazy streets; the youth on bicycles, with their old cars, or tenderly kissing in the grass under a palm tree. The viewer stands in the middle, as on a town square, and people look as they do at a distance, inspecific but recognizable and familiar.

As we approach the individual scenes, we discover the permeability and elusiveness of what lies before us. The texts on these surfaces send our thoughts glancing off from the scenes, just as our thoughts do when we are around familiar, everyday people in places we've inhabited a million times. When home is the advertised ideal of the place to visit for transient happiness, we remember not just our genuine experience, but the ideals made by advertising and collective illusion. Coming, going, or holding still, maybe life is but a dream where genuine pleasure is difficult to feel and reality difficult to know.

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