Artist / Artist: A conversation between Darice Polo and Barry Underwood
Darice: In inviting me to participate in the Full Fathom Five exhibit at Progressive, did you see a connection in our work, and where did that interest come in?
Barry: I was moved by a lot of [what] you were posting on social media, and seeing your work at Bill Busta’s gallery. I was really curious. I also felt that it wasn’t loud, overtly political work, but very quiet, personal, more about the effects on the individuals or the families, rather than pointing blame at somebody, like Robbie Conal calling out the traitor. Then when we had the studio visit for the Full Fathom Five exhibition, I was really struck by your craftsmanship, the detail-oriented approach to the work. It’s a slower process for making it, which I was really impressed and inspired by and in awe of.
DP: Oh, thank you. When I look at your work, I can’t help but think about the environment and climate change and how our administration is completely ignoring it. I too see your work as not being overly “in your face.” Your work is so beautiful. Although you are expressing the intrusiveness of man and technology on the environment, and a kind of perverseness, it’s really beautiful at the same time. Also, I’m drawn to your black and white pieces, to this kind of rich tonal beauty in photography. They feel like a dark mournful expression. My work to some degree is also a mournful expression, not nostalgic, as some have interpreted but a mournful homage to a people who have been forced and displaced from their homeland. So, what we’re doing to our landscapes, to our environment, is not any different from displacing people from their land. I think it’s all interconnected.
BU: I read a quote this week of a Nigerian proverb: “Until the lions have their own historians, history will always be told by the hunters.” The indigenous people in the Americas are not going to be the ones who have their own history told from their point of view. Giving a voice to the individual is important because a lot of stuff is getting drowned out by the noisy things on the top.
DP: Right. It becomes an issue of, “Well, you owe us money,” you know? Rather than, “What’s the human toll on a group of people?”
While I’m largely an advocate for Puerto Rican culture, I also believe that the effect of climate change is the number one issue we’re facing today. It has to be about the people and our survival as human beings. The fact that we’ve withdrawn from the UN’s Human Rights Council is shameful. It’s just mindboggling to me. So, when I think about Puerto Rico now, it’s difficult not to shout out. For so long I’ve been quietly creating a body of work, primarily for my own benefit, navigating through a lot of the issues, and trying to understand history. It was a personal process, like the meditative quality of making work. As an artist it’s a challenge to make work that retains some sense of beauty and still be able to speak to the world about these issues. As I bring more text into the work and at times become didactic, it’s less reliant on formal elements that as artists we are always thinking about. But also, I’m an educator and I want people to understand what’s going on in Puerto Rico, that it is a colony. I think understanding colonialism is particularly important to understanding the history of our environment. When Puerto Rico was taken over it was seen as a way to make money. You have this island of people you can essentially exploit and make money off of, and that’s similar to what you’re saying about natural resources, right? The history of wars is always about that piece of land, its location and resources. It’s never about the people. But now North Americans are faced with climate change and they can’t say, “Oh, that doesn’t affect me.”
BU: People always think that the natural world or nature is over there and we are over here: that there is a separation, but there’s not really a separation. I think of it as, we’re all on a small rock in a bubble of air. There shouldn’t be an us and them. On this planet, we’re all earthlings. And, this doesn’t just extend to people. It’s all the animals too. Everything that’s living on the planet is an earthling.
One of the things you’re touching on is strategies—as in, how we communicate our ideas, our message. For some artists, the screaming or the loud sort of booming of their work is important to get that message across. I’m interested in the strategies of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who talked about being more camouflaged, in part because if it was a black and white issue, the work that he was making would become an easy target for the opposition. So, he employed the strategies of his opposition. In order to get his work out there, he thought of it as a virus. Not necessarily a virus in the bad sense, but how can you get past the wall, the barricade that’s there with the opponent? Essentially, it’s a means of communication. Not necessarily a Trojan horse, to take over, but something to kind of spread information that is about resistance. There’s got to be a means to communicate and I think sometimes you’ve got to be subtle. Sometimes you have to not be overt. I’m a little frustrated with some responses to my work but I know that it’s getting through to people at first in a benign, or non-threatening way. Like, “oh, look at the pretty landscape.” That would be the attraction—like the moth to the flame. Then hopefully people will look past the how I did it, to “What’s going on?” Like, “Why is this here?” Then sort of breaking it down. “The thing that I thought was pretty, was actually a pretty harsh color. It’s kind of abrasive. I’m interested in the land just as much as the thing that’s kind of scratched into or sort of marked there. And the landscapes are a bit awkward. If you were to take out that intrusion or that mark, you’re just left with the landscape, and there’s something odd going on there.”
I like to shoot uphill a lot. Part of the reason is technical: I can deal with foreground/background a little bit easier, especially with the 4×5 camera. When I was making dioramas, I was always thinking of theater where the old stage is raked and has a type of Renaissance painting’s one- or two-point perspective. I take some hints from painters, like Gauguin, as in the way that a table can be tilted in space. He did some still life paintings where in an interior of a room, the table is not quite to perspective. And photographer Jan Groover’s still lifes at first look like a traditional still life, but then at closer look, the ground to the figures is kind of wonky, or twerked. In my final piece for MOCA Cleveland in 2012, you can see the little marks that I made for crosshairs, or the glow sticks to outline the stairs, but if we take that away it’s a discombobulating space alone.
DP: This makes me think of Trenton Doyle Hancock, whose work on the surface appears to be very humorous and light, and rooted in comics. The viewer can easily enter the work and think, “Oh, this looks fun,” but when you delve in, you realize it’s much deeper than that.
BU: Well, it’s a question I asked my students. When we get down to the nuts and bolts of the ideas, what is art? It’s a form of communication. So how do you want to communicate an idea? It goes back to what we were saying earlier: Do you want to be pushing people over or do you want to sort of nudge them? Then of course, I think we can also say, do we want to pick people up? Teaching takes a lot of time. But I can also consider it part of the process, like how you and I are exchanging ideas here, we can exchange ideas with students.
BU: I just tell the students, “I’m just like you guys. I’m just a little bit further down the road.” They have currency. They have experience. I told the class the other day, they’re 21-year-old students and I’m like, “You know, you’ve got 21 years of experience. That’s a lot.”
DP: It’s fresh because they don’t have a lot of baggage clouding their vision.
BU: Right, right.
DP: I also think about the beauty of the black and white image in old film, because I really love and appreciate it. Video is much harsher, so there’s this challenge of having the immediacy of using this new medium, essentially because it’s economical. It’s easy to carry around on site and not too heavy. It’s not a big camera. But then also, how do you make that image powerful and interesting and also beautiful in terms of softness? Video can be harsh at times. So, it’s been great to build this film I’m working on, and it’s interesting how the research for the film has informed the 2D work I’ve been making over the last couple of years.
BU: Is there a cultural approach to the storytelling? Different cultures have different approaches or different styles to telling stories, so I wondered if you were sort of using some of the ideas or strategies from Puerto Rican culture?
DP: I sat down with elders and had conversations with family in Puerto Rico, so some of that footage I’m integrating into the film. I had a discussion with a man whose father spent his whole life working in the sugar cane industry. The equivalent to, say, car manufacturing here in the Midwest and the people who all their lives built cars and their children planned to do the same. It was that sort of tradition. But also, this film is a collaborative project with my cousin who lives in Puerto Rico. She’s this great photographer. She’s been with me from the beginning and took me around the island to specific places she thought were very important to the film. A lot of the places where we captured footage were because of her and her sensibility.
DP: I’d like to say I really love your work, Barry.
BU: Thanks, and yours too.
DP: I’m glad we were able to exhibit together at Full Fathom Five.
BU: Yeah, it was a treat.