Admirers of the electronic duo Underworld—composer/producer Rick Smith and vocalist/lyricist/guitarist Karl Hyde—are likely familiar with the UK band’s albums, from 1993’s tenebrous odyssey dubnobasswithmyheadman to 2007’s ruminative Oblivion with Bells. Most casual music fans have heard Underworld’s propulsive hit single “Born Slippy. NUXX” from the film Trainspotting. Not as widely known is that Smith and Hyde are two of eight cofounders of the 17-year-old art and design collective Tomato. Hyde, a Fluxus-trained art college graduate, and Smith, self-schooled with a digital camera, are equally committed to visual art and photography, showing work in progress daily on the band’s website Underworldlive.com, a companion site to Tomato.co.uk. Tomato’s commissions for commercial, branding and installation clients have ranged from Nokia and Adidas to this summer’s Expo Zaragoza in Spain, but the site also showcases the members’ personal projects. Through Aug. 15, the eclectic work of Smith, Hyde, their Tomato comrades John Warwicker and Simon Taylor, and artist friends Naomi Troski, Richard and Laura Schwamb, filmmaker Toby Vogel, Toru Yoshikawa, and photographer Perou will be shown together for the first time in a two-week exhibition at the Jacobson-Howard Gallery in New York.
The event, entitled Beautiful Burnout ArtJam: The Art of Underworld, offers a fragment of the collective’s drawings, film, soundscapes, paintings, prints, film, and photography. Hyde’s absorbing images of rain-slicked Bratislava streets (above) and Smith’s voluptuous botanical shots (below) are a few of the photos that Warwicker curated for the show. And true to their spontaneous aesthetic, which inspired a Tokyo ArtJam last November, the artists will create work live at the gallery. Warwicker is drawing with pigment oil sticks on aluminum panels, Troski is immersed in a geometric painting, and Hyde expands on his kinetic “suite” of sketches, Everything is Dirt & All the Dirt is Beautiful. The exhibition is also an opportunity for the collective to display its work in a Manhattan gallery that has championed many of their influences, such as Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Motherwell. When PRINT caught up with Warwicker, at the gallery, and Hyde, on the phone en route from Tokyo to New York, the ghosts of abstract expressionists past were very much on their minds.
Print: Your first ArtJam installation during The Oblivion Ball live concert at the Makuhari Messe in Tokyo last year was such an unconventional, freeform event in which members and friends of Tomato painted a 130’ long and 30’ high wall in less than 24 hours. More than 24,000 people watched the painting evolve. Did you have any reservations when you were invited to show work in the more staid, traditional environment of a New York gallery?
John Warwicker: First of all, you hear that Loretta Howard has given us this opportunity. You go, ‘Brilliant!’ And then you go to the [Jacobson-Howard] website: [Joseph] Albers, Rauschenberg, Motherwell, [Frank] Stella, [Roy] Lichtenstein. There are ten of the twentieth century’s greatest artists in this place. Oh fuck. You know, we agreed to it before we thought about it, which is great, really. I got on the phone immediately to Rick and Karl and said, ‘Do you realize what we just let ourselves in for here?’ We’ve got to up the ante to something beyond our abilities to be able to achieve [what we want] here, because this opportunity has come two or three years early in our plan. It might have never happened.
Karl Hyde: It’s odd that somebody from a relatively poor, working class background feels comfortable in an art gallery, but I do. This is something that I’ve really wanted to be part of since the 1970s and Loretta at the gallery has been keeping an eye on what we’ve been doing for the last couple of years. She’s been going to concerts, seeing what we’d done out in Tokyo and looking at what we were doing online and there was empathy there. The people she represents are among some of the most inspiring people in the arts. American abstract expressionism is at the core of what fires me up. Franz Kline—he rocks as far as I’m concerned. I’ve traveled a long way to see his work and dragged my wife around the world with me!
Print: Karl, as a photographer, what have you been asking yourself regarding your own artistic progress or momentum?
Hyde: I’m at a place where I’m overlapping. Like now, I’m watching the light [from his hotel window in Tokyo]. It’s been quite hazy in Japan a lot of the time I’ve been here and the minute the haze lifts, I’ve got to be out on the street where the shadows are sharp. There is that continual hunger to be out there, taking pictures and making drawings. But I’m also crossing to that place now where I need to be in New York, not just to be in the gallery, not just to be making work. But to sit with John Warwicker for a few hours [looking] through the work and going, “What do you think? Because I’m thinking that this isn’t good enough or that there are several directions I’m going here and some of them are good and I’m not feeling comfortable with others. Some are feeling a little fake and some are feeling intuitive.” So, we’ll actually begin to discuss [the photographs]. John’s a great teacher. It’s not good enough to keep churning stuff out and snapping because it can become that: just snapping, just drawing. What’s the development? I come from that background where you make something and then you put it away and then you bring it out again. You reassess it. Which is what Rick does with our music. He works in exactly the same way that I’ve seen every fine artist work. You follow an intuitive path. At some point in the development or the process you need to stop and look and listen to what’s actually there and not just keep making. And I’m at that place right now.
Print: You’re both going to be drawing on site at the exhibit. What do you have in mind and what medium will you use?
Warwicker: Two aluminum panes, 8 feet by 4 feet, onto which I’m drawing people who enter the gallery using oil pigment. I’m interested in honesty in drawing because there’s a very thin line between having facility and being facile. I could make the drawings realistic, but what I’m trying to draw is the honest thing in front of me, the fugitive thing, and to actually make a mark of the fugitive thing; basically, no composition. After an hour or so of these accumulative marks, the human form reemerges.
Hyde: It’s a lo-fi thing with me: black and white, because I like the definition between areas. There’s no grayness, you know? And that’s why I like Franz Kline. There’s a lot of depth and density in his work but when you stand back, it’s very clearly defined. That’s black and that’s white. So the medium I’ve used ever since I was a teenager has tended more towards definition between the areas. I’m in a hotel, so I grab a hotel pencil and pad and use that. It’s not fine art material. I remember being in art college and being pilloried by the head of painting because I was using kids’ crayons and cheap paper from an office equipment place. And that tickled me. So I use pencils, I use big chunks of lead and graphite, chalk, generally mineral white stuff, not paint at the moment. I used black and white acrylics in Japan on the big work we did there. It wasn’t really something I felt ready to do yet. I like dry medium. And [erasers]. I rub out an awful lot. I make marks and then I’ll rub out the bits that I don’t want so there’s a kind of layering and the sense that something was here. It’s not that clearly defined because it’s been scuffed out.
PRINT: Didn’t Rauschenberg erase a drawing by Willem de Kooning?
Hyde: I think of that often. It wasn’t something that was conscious because as soon as I started doing it, John reminded me and I was like, ‘Oh yeah.’ (Laughs). There’s a precedent here. A fairly hefty precedent as well!