Bill Woodrow @ the Royal Academy of Arts

As the promotional material says:

‘This exhibition presents the first comprehensive survey of work by the sculptor Bill Woodrow RA. Comprising around 50 works, the exhibition spans Woodrow’s entire career and explores the themes of his oeuvre from the early 1970s to the present day, highlighting his humour and inventiveness and underpinning his influential role in contemporary sculpture. The exhibition is held in Burlington Gardens, the Royal Academy’s new venue for contemporary art.’

This is not a sell-out exhibition which is a shame. When I got there at 11am it was empty, which meant it was lovely and peaceful to wonder around and let your imagination respond and be inspired by Woodrow’s wonderful creations.

A fairly simple story emerged: In the 50s and 60s there grew up an orthodox school of Modernist sculpture represented by Anthony Caro who made big sculptures in bronze or welded steel, although abstract and Modernist in design, they clearly came from the tradition that sculpture be big and impressive.

1. Early works Woodrow arrived at St Martin’s School of Art in 1968 just after Richard Long and Gilbert and George had graduated and begun to create a movement against the previous generation, invoking conceptual art to find material in the everyday world of the East End (G&G) or on epic walks through strange landscapes (Long). Initially Woodrow followed this line of thinking, in his earliest works such as Untitled 1971 and Corral which feature sticks and images of the countryside. I also liked Babylon, two rows of a dozen ancient bricks holding down a long scroll-like photo of, presumably, the ruins of Babylon.

2. Cutouts and Breakdowns The next and biggest room in the exhibition contained some dozen of the works for which he’s best known. Woodrow seems to be happy to group his works into series with thematic connections. So the cutouts series emerged as he took aviation shears (!) to household white goods and cut out of them strange shapes. Imagine an enormous artillery shell, as tall as a man, a beautifully designed industrial  artefact – and half way down the metal  has uncurled, has been cut away and the shards reworked to for a swallow, painted realistic colours, a natural lifeform emerging from a mass-produced industrial product (nature v man; peace v war) – The Swallow (1984). A kettle has had the bottom cut open an the strands of metal shaped into a giant scarab beetle – The Glass Jar (1983).  Hanging from the ceiling is the fabulous Twintub with Satellite (1982). An elaborate version has a series of wires running from a dismantled filing cabinet yards and yards across the floor to the detached drawers while a a metal monkey leans down to grasp a revolver attached to a hanging  bowling ball (!) – Red Monkey (1985).

Alongside this are examples of the Breakdown series in which he dismantled common white goods and arranged every component in a mat in front. Hence Tape Recorder (1979) and Hoover Breakdown (1979) which made me laugh out loud, and Spin Dryer with Bicycle Frame including Handlebars (1981). A florid example is TV Blind (1979) where the elements derived from smashing in the screens of seven televisions are arranged to spell out the words ‘TV Blind’. Ah the good old days when smashing up a TV was an act of rebellion against the culture industry, or something. A long time ago, a quaint gesture in these days of smartphones, ipads, laptops and desktops which stream TV live or recorded everywhere, to everyone, night and day.

This room put me in a brilliant mood: every artefact was funny, clever, shrewd, well-made, doing what I love most about modern art, showing the incalculable depths of beauty in the everyday. I stood in front of a vast wall-sized sculpture made of bicycle frames arranged into a cross between a family tree and a totem pole and felt glad to be alive and in a world so bursting with opportunities for beauty and invention – Bicycle Frames (1980).

3. Back to sculpture Apparently, his tremendous output during these years, and the inventiveness and originality of these series cemented his reputation, when he made a surprising career move. With success comes money and the ability to experiment in new media and Woodrow took the opportunity to learn more about bronze and steel, precisely the materials used by the previous generation of monumental sculptors and which his generation, born in the 40s and 50s had rebelled against. Along with the more ‘finished’ feel of these constructed works goes a move towards narrative: the pieces tend to be telling some kind of story.

Future Perfect (1988) For Queen and Country (1989) Regardless of History (1998) Cell (1997). The key element in the earlier work was their ‘foundness’ – the viewer shares the imaginative leap of seeing a swallow in a shell, a beetle in a teapot, a satellite in a spin dryer – and the roughness of finish, their punk ethos. Both elements disappear in the later work, which is designed, planned and ‘constructed’ not found – and has a high degree of finish, immaculate metalwork covered in immaculate paintwork which gives many of them an antiseptic, sterile feel.

The sterile feel is worst in the NavigatorEvaluatorRevelator series. Here the white skulls of large animals are placed on smooth blocks of woods, each painted a nice Farrow & Ball colour. Completely failed to engage me, it felt like walking around a  display room in John Lewis or Ikea. Revelator series (2006), Ultramarine Navigator (2005), Kimono Navigator (2005).

Also, in the earlier work the ‘political’ aspect, or the social comment, was implicit in the works: the mere act of dismantling consumer goods is a statement, but a statement implicit in the act. In the later works the social comment or author’s message becomes more obtrusive, and the more obvious it is, the more it risks appearing trite.

There is a beekeeper series, designed to show the delicate balance between nature and man or something – hence Beekeeper and Four Hives (1997). The images, the work, don’t justify the message. Something like Rack 14 (2007) is very well-made but, like the immaculate later Damien Hirst, who cares.

In the final room were a number of new series, the most striking of which were the Inuit series and the Anaconda series. Anyone who labours to tell us that the eskimo way of life is under threat from rapacious western oil companies is on a level with the people telling us the Amazon rainforest is under threat. It is not so much art as visual slogans, the art equivalent of a Guardian pullout or Channel 4 documentary. Far from filling me with a sense of wonder and surprise, as the cutouts did, these works gave me a heavy sense of thumping inevitability.

On this page of the BW website you can click to see the six works from the Black and white series which feature 3-inch high models of Inuit eskimo (made of bronze, painted white) going about their business thumping seals or building igloos or steering sleds, on layers of white ice based in pools of black. That’s the oil sitting under their habitat which wicked western companies want to tap. Geddit?

The Anaconda series from 2009-11 is more inspiring. These also use realistic human figures, these ones a foot or so in height, looking like native tribesmen and, in the various pieces, carrying either a very long anaconda or individual anacondas wrapped round their bodies – Anaconda (2009). For me these had real mystery and strangeness about them and one in particular, of figures carrying snakes waist-deep in water between big lilypads, seemed rather marvellous – Victoria Amazonicanaconda (2011).

Conclusion Bill Woodrow continues to create new works. Go see the show or any new shows you hear about. Check out his website. And make your own mind up.

Bill Woodrow talks to Studio International about his exhibition at The Royal Academy of Arts, London from studio international on Vimeo.

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