Ekphrasis: Chrome Underwood

I have often referred to myself as a photoshoplifter, a kleptographer, or even (depending on my mood), a scan artist. Everything was fair game, nothing was sacred, the world was infinitely malleable. I was a kid in a candy shop. – Chrome Underwood

Chrome Surfing. By Rowan Derryth.

Chrome Underwood is, to me, visual punk rock.  Not in a Jamie Reid sense, although Chrome’s work does evoke some the DIY aesthetic (as he himself noted above) that made Reid’s album covers for the Sex Pistols so iconic.  But his work – and his very persona, which is so much a part of his work – evoke a thoughtful yet irreverent attitude (whether in the controlled chaos of his canvases, or the philosophical pop of his comics) that smacks of intellectual anarchy.

In a way, there are two Chromes (at least… could be more).  There is the Chrome who makes extraordinary abstract digital paintings that he brings into SL.  This Chrome walks the line of my own requisites for the kind of art I want to talk about here, as it is rezzed, but then not worked in SL.  They are, however, only extant in the digital realm, crafted in Photoshop.  Then there is the Chrome who is himself a work of art – the rather sexy, shining-haired philosopher who is but one of several characters – all played by the artist formerly called Chrome (couldn’t resist) for the Lichtenstein-like comics he stages and shoots in SL.

Final frame of 'Decartes Wheels' (2010).

In all his incarnations, Chrome is a motorcycle enthusiast… but as this makes for a rather noisy environment, we rode on down to the beach at Bundoran Reef, West of Ireland, and did a little surfing while we chatted.  I started off by recanting to him the opening of this article, as I’d written it after studying his work, and I was curious if, in his view, I was off the mark.  His reaction?  “I LOVE MYSELF!  I want my autograph.”  Then, after we were done cracking up, he gave me the kindest compliment:

Chrome: That in itself says more about my work than I’ve been able to say for fifteen years… maybe that’s all you need!

RD: (laughing and blushing) The End.

Chrome: Yes!!!!  Love it.

RD: Well, there IS more…

Once I composed myself, I wanted to know more about his ‘paintings’ first.  I asked him about his background as an artist before he came to SL.

Chrome: I began as a young, starry-eyed artist in Manhattan in the seventies; large, graphic, pop art canvases of motorcycles, trucks, bicycles… anything with wheels on it…. but, truth be told, I was also living in the fast lane during those years, and it wasn’t long before my wheels went off the track.  I was resurrected as a designer/illustrator which then led to a college professorship, which gave me the time to get back to my art. I was working in mixed-media back then, assembling collages based on snapshots of tv programming which I would then paint back into…work which, though derived from technology, was still analog. Then one day I sat in down at a Macintosh computer, opened Adobe Photoshop and the lights went on… I realized that this was the tool I had been moving toward, and had been looking for without even knowing it.

Works like 'Seven Eleven' (2009), which combine his digital canvases with SL photography, reveal Chrome's early work as a pop artist.

Chrome: From that point on, my work was exclusively digital, and involved the sampling (I prefer to call it recycling) of visual elements from the world around me; things I found emotionally stimulating, things which may have included my own past paintings and drawings, or even those of the past masters; my photos of abandoned cars and trucks rusting in the sand and sun of the Mojave Desert; commercial graphics, technical illustrations or grafitti. Literally anything that I found tasty went into the mix, and voila!  A souffle!

Andy Warhol was once asked by a reporter why he had become a filmmaker. Deadpan Andy replied, “Because it’s easy. All you have to do is push this button.” That kinda sums up my art; I’ve always been too lazy, too impatient to learn how to paint. I’ve just turned that to my advantage. Laziness is the mother of invention, ya know.

RD: (laughing) Mmhmm… but while it may be the mother of invention, you are clearly anything but lazy.  I wonder what Warhol would have thought of this kind of work… I think he would have loved it (and he was anything but lazy, and a great liar).  But the art fangirl MUST ask… TELL me you met Warhol back in the day?

Chrome: Wish I could; I was there long after the party ended at The Factory, and he was living a much quieter and more secluded life by then.

RD: Damn!

Chrome: There were a few well-known artists I would see regularly in Max’s Kansas City, but I wouldnt say that I hung out with them.

RD: (slightly wide-eyed) Who else inspires you?  I see some colour field painting in your canvases…

Chrome: Wow. Hard to limit it to any particular group… Kandinsky, Rauschenberg, de Kooning, Klee… on and on…

RD: Good group. When I first saw your work, I was intrigued by your reference to Picabia… you include the text ‘Picabia 1913’ in a couple of your works…

'Cameo', (2006)

Chrome: (smiling) Yeah, I do honor the masters by quoting them in my work.

RD: Why that lift, though?

Chrome: Ok….. he just happened to be lying around the kitchen the day that I made that particular souffle.  Coulda been Turner, who knows?

RD: (laughing) I HATE that answer!

Chrome: (grinning) Ok lemme try again… It may take me a few days to research, but I know I can come up with something more profound.

RD: I suppose it was acceptable that he was lying around the kitchen… but here I was thinking deeply about his mechanical portraits, like that of Steiglitz… and how your work deals with visual identity. Perils of being an art historian.  But I think the association is still there, I’m sticking with it.

Here, This Is Stieglitz Here, 1915 Francis Picabia (French, 1879–1953) Pen, brush and ink, and cut and pasted printed papers on paperboard; 29 7/8 x 20 in. (75.9 x 50.8 cm) Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949 (49.70.14) © 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Chrome: Well, if you think of it as  intellectual anarchy, that is what you are left with.  I really don’t think about what I do… but then, Jimi Hendrix didn’t think much while he was playing Voodoo Chile.

RD: Fancy yourself Hendrix, eh?

Chrome: I don’t fancy myself to be anywhere near him, but I’ve always said that if I could paint the way he played guitar I would be one happy artist. It’s about the sheer joy and passion one experiences in creating something that touches some deeper part of the soul. I’ve also said that it’s a lot more fun to make art than it is to try to define it. I wish I could say something more profound, but I’m just the guy who makes the stuff.

It is fascinating to me, though, that your first reference to my art  was to compare it with punk rock… you couldn’t have come any closer, because I almost think of it that way myself, knowing how intensely, almost sexually, pleasurable it was to play drums in a rock band… I expected nothing less from making art.

With that I suggested we go ride some of the pipes swelling behind us for a bit.  It somehow seemed appropriate.  We cut up the surf for a while, then relaxed on our boards again.

I of course wanted to know more about how he was using SL as a medium, and I knew that he had taken part in several prestigious conferences on art in virtual worlds, such as the SIGGRAPH conference as well as round tables and forums on virtual art in SL.  As if reading my mind, he began talking about how he came to the digital work in SL:

Chrome: One more thing about the digital work… I was pretty much dismissed by colleagues in the art community, except for a few other brave souls, when I went digital. They said it was not real painting, that it was ‘push button art’.  So I set out to prove that you could actually squeeze your soul through the keyboard and come out with something as passionate, poetic, and profound as any physical work.

RD: And what is your relationship with Graham Nash?

Chrome: I met him at a digital art conference early on in the digital era; we both had an intense interest in the potential for digital media and had a pretty lively discussion about it. He’s a serious photographer as well as a rock star, and has since founded Nash Editions, a giclee printing house in Los Angeles, where my limited edition prints are produced.

Metaverse (2004)

RD: So how did you get to SL?

Chrome: Ironically, I had just about given up the idea of making it as an artist because of the low level of interest in digital art, and decided to become a writer several years ago.

RD: Really?!

Chrome: Yes, I wrote for about three years, contributing almost daily to three different blogs and a nearly completed memoir.  Then one day I was asked to join a team that was building a virtual college campus in Second Life, and as I explored this new world, it began to revive my interest in art. Xander Ruttan, owner of the Cetus Art Gallery, offered me my first exhibit, and since then it’s been like a roller coaster ride.  Kind of funny, I had to come into a digital world to launch my digital art career.

RD: How did you become a comic book artist?

Chrome: I had been a fan of Botgirl Questi’s comics, all based in SL, and one day we began to discuss the possibility of working on a comic book together. Although the comic book thing never panned out, the discussion led to other ideas and we wound up forming the virtual band, Cherrybomb.  Don’t ask.

RD: (laughs) Yeah, right.  But go on… tell me more about the comics, how they developed?

Chrome: Well, since that discussion I was intrigued by the idea of doing a comic book, and so began experimenting with the medium. I saw it as a way to merge my writing with my art, which might enable me to explore new ideas in a completely different way. I initially developed the three characters – Chrome, Juliette and Vanilla – to fit narratives for a graphic novel that had been germinating in my head… but… umm,  I had to learn how to actually make a comic strip first, so I launched my webcomic, mojozone, and as one strip followed another the characters began to develop their own distinct personalities in that process.  It turned out to be much more fun than I expected and in some ways, it felt like a more personal medium to me than my digital paintings. When I had my first show of my comic strips at Pirats Omega Gallery in SL, for instance, I actually had butterflies in my stomach… I felt I was somehow exposing parts of myself that I don’t normally expose. I had never had that feeling when showing my paintings.

'Wonderland', 2010

Chrome: One thing interesting (at least to me) is that in my paintings I explore the far reaches of visual complexity by pushing Photoshop to its limits. Yet, when I began the comics with every intention of using those tools to create a dramatic new comic form, I found that I just couldn’t do it; that somehow the image had to stand on its own merits as part of the story, and as part of the overall visual impact of the page, just as a painting would. As a result…. I completely abandoned the idea of any photo-retouching in the comics. They are all just as they would appear in SL.

RD: That is interesting… something similar came up when I interviewed PJ Trenton,  you both want your images to appear ‘through the lens’, not retouched… very Ansel Adams.  And particularly surprising for you considering your role as a ‘scan artist’.  Where do you see these works going?

Chrome: Not sure where it is going, actually, but it seems to be headed in a direction where I finally get to express my irreverence toward certain assumptions and pretensions of the intelligentsia, in a loving and humorous way.

'Jukebox' 2010

RD: Well, there are two things I find fascinating about your work, particularly the comics.  The identity issue, which is a huge underpinning aspect of SL as a whole… I know you are working in the Ambiguity of Identity Project with several well-known SL artists, and that it is a project of the Virtual Art Initiative.  I am fascinated by the whimsical yet melancholy way your characters explore this issue – and of course that they are all ‘played by the same person, making them slightly schizophrenic.  Do you identify with your alts?

Chrome: I came into this as a working artist, but I’ve become a kind of movie director… for me a lot of times, when I’m working… my avatars are simply the people I’ve cast for a particular scene; they are actors in my movie. That is how I look at this identity thing; I put words in their mouth, put them in various settings, and let them find their way through it… in that sense, they are individual actors, separate characters; I’m not emotionally invested in them while we’re working. At other times, I consider them to be individual works of art; they have been crafted and refined over several years.

RD: The second thing that intrigues me is the layers, and overlapping, of some many visual and verbal texts in all of your work.

Chrome: Yeah, that opening paragraph you read me touches on something I haven’t seen before, and that is the overlapping, intertwining and cross-pollenation of art, music and writing… in the post-digital age… Botgirl and I have talked about this at length….. you seem to have done that almost effortlessly in that one paragraph, tying together graphic design, fine art, punk rock, comic books, and philosophy. This is what the future is about when it comes to all media, imho. Not many people understand that yet.

RD: Thank you, but I guess that is why I picked Reid as a comparative example.  His work did that.  The photocopy aesthetic.  I love the lack of pretension to it, as well.

Chrome: Exactly… the one thing I always loved about Warhol was the idea of factory-produced art… it was more fun that way, more down to earth.

RD: Well, like Rubens

Chrome: Well, yes, but without all of the aristocratic interference.

RD: Can’t speak to the fun for Rubens, but there were lots of saucy naked chicks.

Chrome: (laughing) Yep,  got me there.

RD: Same in the Factory, though.   They were just MUCH thinner.

Chrome: Yeah, kinda sad, actually; women should have some meat on their bones.

And with those sage words, we enjoyed some more surf, and more philosophy and tales of youthful antics that should probably not be printed here.  Find our more about at his main website, and catch up on his comic hereHis blog is also well worth a read, and aptly titled ‘Chrome never sleeps.’  I believe it.

New to Ekphrasis?  Catch up on the previous posts here:


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