ARTIST TALK: RACHEL UNDERWOOD, 2020 MFA

Rachel Underwood
B. F. A. (2017) Towson University, Towson, MD

Meet Rachel Underwood, a painter’s painter and environmental guardian. Her artwork investigates how human activity has affected earth’s systems in our current geological age, the Anthropocene. Specifically, Underwood is interested in “how the human animal’s impact on the planet is causing a sixth mass extinction,” and how avoidance affects resiliency or worse: the collapse of all species. Underwood turns to the conventions of oil paint and the system of perspective to depict a cascade of events and repercussions spinning out of control with no end in sight. She uses one-point perspective to portray the illusion of three dimensions on a painted surface, but also to position the viewer exactly where the panoramic scene coalesces. For Underwood, perspective is also a metaphor for trickery and the ruse “like a political platform of deception and distortion” that denies imminent crisis and subverts facts. The artist pairs perspective with a luscious application of paint to create a startling apocalyptic spectacle with fragmented images of disaster. Together these strategies unite in a believable pictorial space that wraps around the viewer like a harrowing psychorama.

Meet Rachel Underwood, a painter’s painter and environmental guardian. Her artwork investigates how human activity has affected earth’s systems in our current geological age, the Anthropocene. Specifically, Underwood is interested in “how the human animal’s impact on the planet is causing a sixth mass extinction,” and how avoidance affects resiliency or worse: the collapse of all species. Underwood turns to the conventions of oil paint and the system of perspective to depict a cascade of events and repercussions spinning out of control with no end in sight. She uses one-point perspective to portray the illusion of three dimensions on a painted surface, but also to position the viewer exactly where the panoramic scene coalesces. For Underwood, perspective is also a metaphor for trickery and the ruse “like a political platform of deception and distortion” that denies imminent crisis and subverts facts. The artist pairs perspective with a luscious application of paint to create a startling apocalyptic spectacle with fragmented images of disaster. Together these strategies unite in a believable pictorial space that wraps around the viewer like a harrowing psychorama.

For Battin’ A Hundred Underwood created Virtuous and Vicious, a monumental installation that shrinks the viewer to amplify calamity. Viewers step into the allegorical landscape over a symbolic threshold flanked by two radiant cypress swamp paintings. Once inside, Underwood’s apocalyptic world unfolds like a sleight of hand. Roaring fires give way to tropical islands. Animals stand knee-deep in rising tides illuminated by majestic yet threatening skies. Sea creatures, birds and dogs frolic in the water beneath ruins of Moorish arches appropriated from Napoleon in the Pesthouse at Jaffa (Antoine Jean-Gros, 1804). As the world faces a global pandemic, plague-stricken Jaffa is particularly fitting. French artists used metaphors of illness to describe a sick political body, and the Virtuous and Vicious version seems equally appropriate. Underwood links our world stories to the past, and like English romantic painter John Martin, populates her landscapes with miniature figures. Yet Underwood’s minute characters are actual viewers wrapped up inside her massive panorama. Like J.M.W. Turner, a colorist who pushed the limits of artistic truth, Rachel Underwood’s technicolor veracity compels us to see the emergent forces shaping the story of an uncertain future.

Some fun facts about Rachel Underwood: She has two rescue dogs named Rembrandt and Roussseau. She served four years in the Navy and was an electrician on the Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier. Underwood’s talents earned her the unofficial title of Navy Ship Muralist.

 

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