Elizabeth Underwood is a multi-media visual artist working with site-specific installation, photography, journaling, sculpture, collage, and drawing. In her work, these varied disciplines undoubtedly inform each other in concrete and surprising ways. She utilizes simple materials (Styrofoam balls, recycled water bottles and baby food jars, rope and twine, pennies, twigs, house paint, tin cans, wax, birdseed, pencil, markers, paper, mylar) to create unexpected narratives intended to alter one’s perspective of one’s place in the world.
Regardless of material, Ms. Underwood is essentially pursuing consistent themes: impermanence, universal experiences of exile and how home is defined, questions of individual and collective responsibility, and the alchemical properties of common materials. Her work deconstructs notions of the precious art object, modernist myths of the artist’s authority independent of society, and the capitalistic ideology that emphasizes the commodification of art over its spiritual properties.
Informed by her experience that the creative process can be a tool for healing from trauma and affecting social change, one of Ms. Underwood’s current main projects involves the construction of a series of site-specific interactive installations built in areas of New Orleans struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina. By connecting with strangers, listening to their stories, and becoming physically intimate with the new landscape of New Orleans, Ms. Underwood confronts her own fears about returning to the locus of her trauma (as a citizen for 12 years, she lost her home and entire archive to the flooding post-Katrina) and re-scripts a heartbreaking narrative in an empowering context.
Ms. Underwood’s dominant intention is to reanimate the ravaged landscape with beautiful surprises contrary to the surreal visual experiences that have become part of the post-Katrina vernacular. Impermanent installations are particularly potent in this context given their ability to leave moral echoes in their wake. Their appearance and disappearance makes them more haunting as they seem to emanate from the landscape itself, a secretion or repressed dream-memory. Ms. Underwood partners with citizens to initiate these installations, including them in the art-making process. She believes this entire cycle maintains creative traditions that define New Orleans (public ritual, shrines, the transmutation of pain into joy) and helps create one template for coping with crisis that can be universally initiated.
Parallel to this work, Ms. Underwood’s drawings and collage address how one navigates one’s place in a fluid, vulnerable world. The new series of vivid labyrinthine “Internal Hypographies”, marker drawings on paper often with mylar drawings layered on top, are reminiscent of the aerial views of New Orleans immediately after Katrina and can be interpreted as trapped areas bound by water or floating objects one can use for survival.