That which is uncanny, I often find, is most unnerving. It’s not demonstrative enough to be out-right terrifying and yet there’s an implication that something seems very wrong. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that something seems very ‘odd’. Such is the distinct and unique reason that I’ve recently been taking a look at the surrealist art of George Underwood. While many may know the name as the guy who designed some of David Bowie’s album art (the two being friends in school) his position as a freelance artist has lead to his creation of several surrealist pieces, each fairly simple in design but inexplicably complex in its formation. Since it’s his surreal artwork I want to focus on, I think you can consider this article as a list of my personal favourites of his. There’s plenty of other artwork that he does that I wouldn’t necessarily class as ‘surreal’. Either way you should check out his portfolio on his website here.
Lets take first some of his more recent work, 2008-2010. One aspect of his paintings that affects me when viewing them is the thick texture of his oil paint, and the layers that make whatever image is on the canvas (however simplistic) tangible and visceral. For example, his painting ‘Rainy Day Women’ (2008) which shows two women, one wearing all black, the other all white; Each is wearing a large, oddly shaped hat that trails into their gowns as if it were a separate skin altogether. Each hat becomes a geometrical shape, casting one in front of the other. Immediately you notice the simple backdrop and content of the painting yet it seems to captivate you. The art-nouveau faces of the two women staring at you with those crisp cut eyes, thick with the feeling that something’s not quite right. There’s a tension you can feel to the piece, which clashes with the simplicity of its execution. You try to work out if there’s any one specific thing about the painting that hidden within it’s thick texture which unnerves you so; their necks seem too long, the hate are inherently strange and the fact that their faces match also adds to the mix. Overall the quality you get of the piece is one of utter detail from Underwood’s sublime brush strokes but a subsequent scene that seems too ‘there’, too tangible for comfort.
This feeling only intensifies in ‘Tonight’s the Night’ which replicates the same figures but this time we have another woman in the mix, also wearing a matching hat so that the left and right figures frame the one towards the back. Another similar piece is ‘Oh Sister’ in which we are presented with replica faces only going to the neck down, repeated and repeated so that the end result is an artistic forest of seemingly blank, yet subtly intent stares from porcelain faced figures. Their black hats are reminiscent of an Audrey Hepburn poster, but their vacant stares does away with any sense of vibrancy. I suppose what I was left with most of all was a certain nostalgic, melancholy. In a sense the surrealist nature of this piece is simply the breadth of psychological responses it can evoke from a viewer.
If we go further back into his portfolio, we find a group of paintings labelled ‘Medieval’, which brings us to an interesting point. Many of the faces he paints, resemble that Renaissance style of deep and heavily shaded colours which render the figure with great accuracy but simultaneously a hazy countenance. Pieces like ‘Pilgrim’ ‘or ‘Face to Face’ only prove it. In the latter, we see two jesters approach each other on a shadowy ground, where what appears to be a city lies in the background . Each faces the other, but holds a mirror to their own face, an ironic turn on the title. Immediately it seems Medieval in style ( a broad description I know.) It has the simultaneous detail and other worldliness of Lorenzo Ghiberti or the doom paintings of Bosch, and yet it rings true to the stylistic point we often take from certain -post-surrealist works which attempt to add a base level structure to surrealist art. This painting for example is thoroughly odd, and yet it has been structured specifically to present the ironic twisting of the title – perhaps a comment on the sins on vanity? It’s an interesting question as there’s no specific difference between surrealism ad post-surrealism, and the question of what place ‘structure’ has in surrealism continues to this day. As you probably know, i’m a great believer that something is surreal even if it does have structure of some semblance of conscious presence. This piece is a prime example, the image seeming distant, as if the setting is beyond the mortal world and in a purely conceptual space, the figures we deem as human in fact being exposed as tools by the painting, a reflection of something else – much like apparitions in dreams.
But then if you were to take a piece in the same section named ‘Tempting Fate’, the style doesn’t seem quite as adherent to the Medieval form. Instead we return to the nouveau style mentioned in the earlier group of work, suggesting Underwood’s stylistics change depending, perhaps, on the content of the piece. Because the one thing that seems consistent is the repetition of isolation, the uncanny and a surreal undertone pointing us a s viewers to the conclusion that there’s something within this modest painting that isn’t right. The image shows us a jester with a long, thin hat, looking at a smaller toy version of his own head, stood upon a circular precipice with a deep red backdrop. The expanse of the piece is impressive, the setting feeling infinitely bigger than how Underwood has presented it. This in turn reinforces a sense of isolation at the figure, but this isolation is only so unnerving because it invites you to join the scene. It feels more as if the viewer, alone, has found this figure in a vacuous expanse, and our journey of watching the painting is similar to the decision of whether or not to go and find out what’s ahead by said figure. So in that way, there’s almost a sense of exploration woven into the layers of Underwood’s scenes, unspoken and yet deafening. The dark tones of the backdrop cause numerous shadows to cast themselves from the figure and so the scene we’re left with in the oily image is something that resembles a lone museum exhibit, inviting us with a distinct sense of caution.
A final one i’d like to mention is his piece ‘Walking with Giants’ in which we see an anthropomorphic dove as an aristocratic lady, staring across a flat plain to hills made of large, oval head which loom over her, holding the familiar blank expressions common in Underwood’s pieces – a painter who thrives on the subtle. They almost seem like a sunset made of living mass, their colossal eyes staring down with a familiar vacant yet intensive look. Underwood even has an entire gallery dedicated to the anthropomorphic, and his repetition of that motif here is an effective confusion strategy, undermining our expectations of his world once more. In fact I didn’t even notice that the figures head was a dove until at least a minute in to viewing the painting. I think it’s also the odd shapes of the heads, appearing like statues of great worms on the horizon, once more adhering to Underwood’s interpretation of a blank, yet textured Medieval style.
Underwood manages to weave so much into his work, and there’s consistently some kind of narrative, even if we as viewers don’t necessarily understand it or have an interpretation. Yet conversely he establishes the kind of strangeness that feels like it wouldn’t exist if you weren’t looking at it. His work is a continuous reflection, and one that we’re not familiar with. Essentially that is what the uncanny is, the fear of something that we can’t tell is human or not, which I think dilutes into whether or not something seems familiar or unknown. Underwood’s paintings embody both, with a beautifully rich painting style coupled with a unique and structured approach to art stylistics.