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An Interview with Artist Barry Underwood

In his series, Scenes, Barry Underwood uses modified light-emitting objects, such as LEDs and glow sticks, to stage preternatural intrusions into his chosen landscape, then captures the effects using long exposures. The series combines elements of photography, sculpture, and land art, and draws upon his early work in theater as a technical director. The otherworldly beauty of the resulting images can be inexplicably discomforting, as if we are witnessing an alien invasion of an otherwise tranquil scene.

He uses various techniques to shape the artificial light, making use of materials such as paper, fabric, latex balloons, and Mylar to achieve the desired effect. The tension between the softness of the natural ambient light and the harsher, unnatural staged lighting, is suggestive of the encroaching threats of pollution and human intervention on the natural landscape. Underwood told ArtPin, “My intrusion of line and color metaphorically reference or mimics the destructive ways humans can create turmoil in the natural environment, use and abuse the landscape, as well as how landscaped is divided, surveyed. I include human-made lights in order to disrupt the spatial effects and flattened out the native palette of color of a site. “ He added, “These colors that I introduce are mostly crude, abrasive and flat, set in contrast to the rich and wider tonal range of the ambient hues. I choose complementary colors, analogous colors, or a triadic color scheme for each piece to push against or mimic the ambient light in each environment.”

Underwood has worked in artist residencies across the U.S., giving him the opportunity to explore diverse landscapes and experience first hand the effects that humans have had over the natural world. He says of the residencies, “They are artistically rich environments, where I can meet, converse and collaborate with artists, writers and musicians. These residencies provide varying opportunities for inspiration, and have allowed me to develop new ways of working. It was initially on a residency in Banff (the Banff Center in Alberta, Canada) that I became more attentive to environmental issues and began to address global concerns like pollution, land use, and climate change in my artwork.”

Each installation is a reflection of his immersion into a location, as well as his research into the agricultural, industrial, and recreational uses of the landscape. They tell a story about the historical context of each site, and the possible repercussions of unchecked human intervention. According to Underwood, “All landscapes contain rich layers of information, and allows for certain type of storytelling. It encapsulates the ideas of the sublime, human’s power over nature, and nature’s power over humans. With my work I reveal, question, and contemplate these layers. I am thinking about land use and the interpretation of landscape. Curiosity about the ecological and social history of specific places now drives my work.”

Despite the amount of research and planning that goes into each piece, his goal is “not to portray environmental issues in a heavy-handed way.” The work is much more about a feeling, a subtle truth that we cannot look away from. “Ultimately,” he says, “the photographic documents of my intrusions reveal the uncanny beauty and mysterious potential within an everyday scene.”