In times of isolation, questions of faith, humanity and philosophy inevitably rise to the surface. Visual art, as always, represents an opportunity to consider these questions in new lights — even if the work can’t be seen in person. “Neon Believer,” a solo exhibition of work from Nashville painter and writer Harry Underwood presented online by Julia Martin Gallery, brings these questions to the fore, offering the perspective of a local trailblazer.
Before becoming a full-time artist from his home in Springfield, Tennessee, Underwood worked in Nashville’s construction industry. In 1997, he was robbed at gunpoint in New Orleans and forced to consider what he would want to focus on in his life if he survived. He began writing, drawing and painting and built notoriety throughout exhibitions in Nashville. Underwood is often classified as an “outsider artist” — that is, an artist without formal training or significant contact with the mainstream art world (a label he has avoided). He has nonetheless become prolific, perhaps the most well-known visual artist living in Nashville, having had his work exhibited around the world and collected by numerous celebrities.
Among his signatures are the use of stenciled imagery, penciled text and the inscribed moniker “Harry.” The work in “Neon Believer” stays true to these signature elements while bringing a new color palette and deeper focus on religion.
“The title ‘Neon Believer’ comes from a group of Amish women Harry Underwood encountered in Kentucky wearing long, handmade, neon-colored dresses,” per a release on the show from Julia Martin Gallery. “Having never seen the traditional garments in neon before, he was inspired to add a neon green to his palette. The term stuck, noting that ‘neon believer’ sounded a bit like ‘nonbeliever.'”
Having struggled in his life to relate to family members who are traditionally religious, Underwood’s pieces in the show represent deeper reflection from the artist on philosophy and faith.
“Harry’s subject matter often deals with feelings about religion,” according to Julia Martin Gallery. “His recent work delves deeper into philosophical realms delivering ideas via preachy sounding verses and proverbs — Harry’s version of preaching, take it or leave it.”
In Pedestrian’s Aquarium, Underwood’s signature writing includes messages like “The universe presents it’s puzzle / demonstration contradiction and struggle” and “Burn as brightly as you can.” These messages are written in the tight negative spaces within a crowd of people, many wearing shades of neon green or blue, existing as dynamic edicts that bounce between them. The members of the crowd seem oblivious to one another yet overlap and complement, creating a symphonic whole. The closeness and interplay of the figures is all the more poignant now, in a time when such proximity is being strictly forbidden.
In all, the effect of the piece, as throughout “Neon Believer,” is one of poignant philosophy, an outsider’s view looking in.
Underwood’s work has been exhibited throughout Nashville and the world, including at the Belcourt Theatre, Nashville International Airport, New York City’s Outsider Art Fair and the Halle Saint Pierre Museum in Paris.
Julia Martin Gallery is located at 444 Humphreys Street in WeHo.