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Q&A: Andrew Douglas Underwood

by Tina Aguilar 30 Jan 2012 12:42 PM

Guest blogger Tina Aguilar speaks with the Dallas artist about his new exhibition on display at SMU’s Mildred Hawn Gallery.


Michelangelo Moses

Guest Blogger Tina Aguilar teaches Humanities at El Centro College.

Ever wonder about the history of a place or an object? Facets of settings, stories and designs are found in “Archive of Shadows,” a new exhibition by Dallas artist Andrew Douglas Underwood at the Mildred Hawn Gallery at SMU.

The alchemy of his collection offers a journey through his creative process, the aura of time and deep wonder of what it means to be an artist. He met me recently for a conversation in the gallery.

T.A.: Can you discuss the concept for this particular exhibition?
A.D.U.: The overarching theme in my work is sort of an examination of what contemporary art can hold. I am looking at the idea of perfection – what is perfection. Historical narrative is the common thread that hooks all the work together, but I’m also thinking about presentation. In this particular show working with Sam [Ratcliffe], I have been able to use the vitrines that they have here and take it to another level. But the idea is really how can I talk about museums and the preciousness that vitrines and a particular way of presenting work in a museum can be examined and broken down.

For instance, for all the works in the show, instead of the traditional gallery label on the wall, I have made little placards to go in the vitrine that give all of the information as it might look in a museum, about the measurements, the materials used, and in some cases, there are excerpts, texts from books. There’s a lot of research that goes into all the work, so there’s a number of levels that I am working on.

T.A.: Yes, the depth is apparent, and I feel like I am walking into different vaults.
A.D.U.: With Hawthorne in Salem, I actually went to The House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Mass., and took photographs of the grounds. And the idea is to provide a bunch of fragments to tell, collectively, a whole story with a map, with directions where the photographs were taken, corresponding with the labels on the actual photographs, and orient yourself in that space and move around that space. So the idea is to re-create these worlds, so it’s removed from reality, but it references it.

T.A.: Do you typically work with black and white photography, and how do you decide which elements you will use for each piece?
A.D.U.: The photography itself, the framing of the image, I try to approach from a very documentary standpoint, but what I do from that point on is maybe a little bit less conventional. I manipulate it in Photoshop and really enhance the mood. I do a lot of techniques to try to replicate early photography; printing on uncoated paper and on Rives BFK, to me, relates more to drawing. I want everything to have a sort of preciousness, a built-in reference to antiquity.

T.A.: The tone of all of the images definitely adds to the experience; there’s a dark ambiance that lures the viewer.
A.D.U.: This body of work has been going on for about three, four years now. The look of the work for me has been Gothic, and there’s a dark foreboding thing. There are a lot of mystical, spiritual things going on on one level; but the other side of that is, with Gothic themes, there’s always a romantic story underneath. And so that is really attractive to me as well.

T.A.: What are we looking at here with this particular map?
A.D.U.: The folio set has little letters that correspond with the map and the numbers correspond with this list of the different houses on the property. The arrow tells you the angle that I was looking at it, and the Salem Sound, it’s water right here, kind of looking past The Counting House onto the Salem Sound.

T.A.: It is like a puzzle. I was trying to plant myself in it.
A.D.U.: It is. That’s what I hope will happen. It’s like how much time do you want to spend with it. You can devote a lot of time to it because there are a lot of layers. I think I could appreciate it just as an object, also, just an aesthetic thing.

T.A.: What about your piece showing the connection between the Earl of Essex and Queen Elizabeth?
A.D.U.: This is I.C.U.S.X. & E.R., which was a cipher scratched into a window in the original Essex House, and has been torn down, I think in the 1800s. But it was really in its heyday in the 1600s. The story goes that there was a tryst between Queen Elizabeth, a.k.a. Elizabeth Regina, and the third Earl of Essex. So the idea is looking out of the window looking onto the grounds. This is actually Hampton Court Palace, but this is a place where Elizabeth did spend time. This was her father’s place, so this is looking out the window onto the grounds. Just trying to give a sense of what that might have felt like because this is a similar period. Not exactly the same, but in the ballpark. But the other thing referencing that tryst, the conical trees, the fountains bursting into the air, the label [EVRGN] which can say evergreen or a virgin. It’s a little bit tongue in check.

T.A.: Tell me about the bell.
A.D.U.: This piece is The Two Lives of Great Tom of Westminster, and Great Tom of Westminster is a bell that was originally in the Westminster clock tower, so it had a secular purpose serving the people around Westminster. And then eventually that tower fell in disrepair and they rebuilt it, Big Ben today; the bell was eventually moved to St. Paul’s Cathedral. That’s where it is today. This is the map that shows the course the bell took through London. I have painted the bell to scale, so this is the actual size of the bell, from all my research this is six feet across.

T.A.: When you find a trace of something that you want to follow, it seems to offer you a freedom.
A.D.U.: That’s the beauty of it. I can distill something or explode it. I have short-term and long-term projects, and I have a running list all the time. Within those lists are sub lists and possible parts. Some things are a lot more feasible than others.

T.A.: In The Claude Glass (below), you juxtapose the convex mirror with your photography. I want to flip the pages and see more. But we’re only able to see one image.
A.D.U.: I like the idea of withholding some information and with different presentations some things will be hidden, some things will be revealed. That drives some people crazy, but there’s something tantalizing about it.

T.A.: What were your art beginnings?
A.D.U.: I don’t really ever remember not having art in my life. My father is an artist, my aunt, and my uncle that I work for is a photographer [David H. Gibson]. It’s sort of just been around me my whole life. But after getting my B.F.A., music had also been a part of my life for a long time, and I was devoting more time to that. I kind of got to a point where I decided I needed to let music go for a while, but there was a chunk of about 10 years where I really focused on music. And, interestingly, that is coming back into play a little bit as a part of these projects. There are some larger-scale projects that I am working on, and music will be a component, a part of the archive, but not in the same way it was when I was working on it full time.

T.A.: I like what you are talking about – giving yourself choices and having many layers for what you’re working on in your projects.
A.D.U.: I like that word choices. As time goes on I see more and more things these projects can hold. And all the work I have done in the past, in school, the music even, and all the drawing, photography, cartography, all the texts, just open up this world more for me as time goes on.

T.A.: What about that larger scale project?
A.D.U.: I am working on a project on the Ohio River [La Belle Riviere], so I am looking at four eras of the Ohio River – prehistoric, pre-colonial, Steamboat Era and the Flood of 1937 – and I have written a couple of songs. I am working with a friend who’s a musician in Louisville, Ky., where I am from, to create ambient, more score-like pieces for those different eras. And I am hoping to get some other people involved in that, too.

The exhibit runs through Feb. 5 in the Jake and Nancy Hamon Arts Library at Southern Methodist University.