Tennessee artist uses house paint on plywood to depict retro scenes that explore human connection and the 'paradoxes of opposites'
Harry Underwood grew up south of Miami in Homestead, Florida, but about 20 years ago an uncle got him a job installing ceramic tile in Springfield, Tennessee, so Underwood packed up and moved west.
“I was never good at leveling floors to lay ceramic tile, so I would cheat and fill it in with plywood, and I was noticing that this wood was really lightweight and you can cut it however you needed it,” Underwood said recently by phone.
At the same time, Underwood was teaching himself how to paint. After dabbling with various kinds of paints and pastels, he realized his construction work gave him easy and ample access to house paint, which he began to use on the plywood.
“There’s no art supply stores here in Springfield. You have to go to Nashville,” he said. “Everything I use you can get at the hardware store.”
As a kid in Florida, Underwood never cared for the region’s color palette of teal, orange and beach-y pastels. But once he moved away he began to miss it, and those Floridian hues began making their way into his paintings.
“I think my paintings look like a sentimental idea I had of Florida,” he said.
And it’s not just the colors. The people, buildings and scenes in Underwood’s paintings all evoke a distant, idealized American past that may never have actually existed. “It’s just a dissatisfaction of the time I’m always living in. And nowadays, I really have a problem with it. I can’t even dream about the future very positively anymore,” he said. “I don’t like the past, but I like the design elements. I think magazine ads from the ’70s inspired me a lot. As a boy we had lots of National Geographic and Life magazines. They always had automobile ads that were showing this middle-class dream of luxury autos and good-looking women in evening gowns. I really liked that. And cigarette ads. Everybody’s in a swimming pool with a cigarette.”
Duff Lindsay, who runs the Short North’s Lindsay Gallery, which focuses on self-taught American folk and outsider art, first became aware of Underwood’s paintings through the Judy A Saslow Gallery in Chicago. Lindsay said he was “knocked out” by Underwood’s paintings, but also the text the artist includes in his pieces.
“This is not shtick. The more you read the text in his work, you realize that this is really from the heart. His text is so revealing about his longings and uncertainties,” Lindsay said. “He once told me that the imagery is retro, but the text is really what he’s thinking and feeling that day. A lot of the text is that desire for sincerity and for things to be real and fair and honest.”
A selection of Underwood’s pieces are on display at Lindsay Gallery through July 28, and the title of the exhibition, “Manifestations of Certitude and Doubt,” takes its name from the text on one of Underwood’s paintings, though the theme resonates throughout much of the artist’s recent work.
“I get locked in these paradoxes of opposites. Certainty and uncertainty — I’m kind of confused about it. If you know you’re gonna be uncertain about things all the time, you can be certain about that,” Underwood said. “It’s a joke, but it’s kind of sad, too. I’m frustrated about it. I’ve been stuck in that, talking about that a lot.”
One painting on display titled “Intermission” depicts a man and a woman in a living room grimly holding yo-yos. Above their heads, Underwood riffs on his recent obsession with certitude and doubt.
“Uncertainty is not so precise as to prohibit an intermission,” it reads. “We are endowed with the presumption there will be red-letter days ahead. Meaning is a dynamic of uncertainty and confusion is certainty pro tempore.”
On the wall behind the couple is more text: “Inertia is an enemy of the yo-yo.” Nearby, the couch is on fire.
“You want to build a castle for yourself and live in it and decorate it and create a life to relax in, and then once you’re there you’re not happy with it. Nobody’s ever happy with anything they’ve got,” Underwood said of “Intermission.” “I don’t like being indoors, either. I’m outside right now. I can’t stand sitting in the house during the day. I have trouble coming up with interior scenes. I can’t remember now where I got that room from, but I furnished it with everything from my own living room.”
Underwood’s paintings also tend to evoke a longing for human connection. People in his paintings often reach out for someone or wrap their arms around others.
“Harry's kind of a shy person, and I don't think he really likes the speed and the noise and the hubbub of the modern world,” Lindsay said. “There’s a quote that I always remember from one of Harry's paintings. It has always stuck out to me. He wrote it around the hubcap of an old car, and it said, ‘There's no sadder sound than a sound that is found from the shy, the innocent and the unknown.’ And I think that whether Harry realizes it or not, he was describing himself.”
“I know hundreds of people after [painting] for so long, but when I started looking for a medium to express myself I was a really isolated person,” said Underwood, who still lives a fairly solitary existence, though now it’s by choice. “I spend most of my time alone. If I’m lucky I can think about my work. I don’t want to hear myself talk to people. When they leave and I’m left alone and the things I said are echoing in my ears, I kind of regret everything I say. When I say things in paintings, at least I can focus on it and say something serious.”
And unlike the people in those magazine ads from the ’70s, Underwood isn’t interested in surrounding himself with commodities. His art is his primary focus. “I see people around me medicating themselves by buying things, and I don’t really do that. There’s nothing I want. I can’t think of anything I want in life. I just want to make better paintings,” he said. “I feel like I have a future when, somewhere in my brain, I can imagine my paintings getting better.”