BILL WOODROW SCULPTURES 1981-1997 (Text from catalogue)
Mestna Galerija, Ljubljana, Slovenia 1997
Bill Woodrow's sculpture has been exhibited around the world, surprisingly
this is the first exhibition to attempt an overview of the artist's
evolution to date. While practical considerations preclude the possibility
of exhibiting the more monumental bronze sculptures made during the
90s, the selection includes a number of works which illustrate Woodrow's
developing concerns throughout the past decade and a half.
In the early
1980s, Woodrow emerged as a pivotal figure in a new generation of British
sculptors. While their work was distinguished by its highly individualistic
approaches - itself a critique of the conformity of late modernism -
a common concern centred on the use of found-objects and/or simple manufacturing
sculpture from this period utilised the detritus of a consumer society,
where commodities from discarded washing machines to automobile parts
were cut apart and transformed into a new set of imagery. If this archaeology
of the commonplace further suggested a critique of capitalism and its
signifiers, it also shared the visual wit of Pop. Moreover, it touched
the more poetic levels of association that concretize memory, while
subtly questioning the discrete autonomy of identity.
One of the
earlier works to explore the cutting and reassembling of found objects,
Tricycle and Tank
(1981) can be read as a poignant evocation of childhood where the metamorphosis
from host to constructed object seems to imply the gulf separating formative
innocence from adult complicity. And yet the relationship cannot be
so simple, for a further reading would have us see the adult persona
growing - in this case literally - out of childhood experience.
reading would see within the dynamics of this opposition some association
with the Hegelian dialectic and its implications, not only for the individual,
but for the historical process. Here the work would seem to hint that
the historical process cannot automatically be equated with progress.
work is typified by such ambiguities, allowing for slippage between
one reading and another. Ultimate meaning is withheld and we are often
on surer ground if we approach the work from its formal qualities. Tricycle
and Tank's appeal lies as much in the dexterity of its manufacture,
the economic fashioning of one artifact from another through the simple
cutting and bending of metal.
are employed in Empty
Grate (1987), a work that relies less on metamorphosis yet still
utilises the cutting and bending of found metal components to create
a new set of universally recognisable imagery. The same undercurrent
of menace surfaces, the devouring knife, fork and spoon suggesting an
affinity with Dali's Autumn Cannibalism of 1936. Dali's reflection on
the early events of the Spanish Civil War, and his attitude to history
in general, carries a certain ambivalence. This is not quite Woodrow's
position, but there is a sense in which both artists suggest the inevitability
of the historical process, presenting both its positive and negative
aspects without any overt propagandizing.
Grate was made during the transitional period when Woodrow gradually
abandoned the direct manipulation of found objects and turned instead
to welding sheet steel bought expressly for the purpose (e.g. Whenever,
1989, exhibited at the Mala Galerija, Moderna Galerija, Ljubljana in
1989). Although the sculptures made between 1987-90 continued a similar
set of concerns and imagery, this change in material practice facilitated
a greater freedom both in scale and procedure. This period also saw
an increased interest in drawing that would eventually lead to the large-scale
works in oilstick on paper made during the mid 90s.
welded steel, Woodrow investigated a variety of other materials and
approaches during the late 80s. Back
to Earth (1988) was made during a five-week residency in Seatle.
At this point Woodrow was still occasionally using found objects, although
with little or no alteration to their material form. The objects here
are all related to his working visit to the States. Cast in bronze,
they are connected - both literally and conceptually - by a thin winding
ribbon suggestive of the way sunlight picks out rivers when seen from
a high flying aircraft. The formal qualities of his gold-leafed 'river'
find an echo in the segmented handle of the shovel. There is no simple
interpretation to the piece, although the informality of the bronze
ribbon precariously balanced on these collected mementoes seems to hint
at the fragility of the associations which bind memory together.
Tank (1990) explores a still greater diversity of materials,
both found and manufactured. In a rare insight into the specific origins
of his imagery, Woodrow reveals that the reappearance of the tank was
prompted by constantly seeing television news reports of the worsening
situation in Croatia. While the point is not explicit in the work, we
might borrow on Marx's concept of dialectical materialism to explain
the gold coins which permeate all the elements, a reflection perhaps
that capitalism and its demands furnish the determining conditions for
all human endeavour.
to feature in a number of works from 1990, including Self
Portrait in the Year 1990 and Stranger.
Both works introduce elements borrowed from jigsaw puzzles. Yet again
the artist is wary of any definitive interpretation, but the implication
of the fractured puzzle, the coins and the depiction of keys and foliage
in Self Portrait would seem to point to a frustrated ecological concern
and possibly its irreconcilable relationship to consumerist culture.
we should be careful not to read Woodrow's intentions too literally.
His succinct vocabulary of forms is arrived at primarily through a regard
for the formal properties of particular imagery; it is only through
the making process that the artist explores more associative ideas.
Thus, issues may be raised but not necessarily resolved. A certain level
of ambiguity is essential, for Woodrow's sculpture demands the active
participation of his audience and shifts much of the onus for interpretation
from the artist/creator onto the viewer/reader.
(1991) the triple-ball symbol of the pawn broker's shop would at first
appear to imply a precise and literary interpretation. However, if we
choose to elaborate on the socio-economic associations of the sign-as-symbol,
the responsibility for the interpretation is ours. As in the labyrinthine
machinations of Umberto Eco's novel, Foucault's Pendulum, if the bare
facts of existence take on a fixity of meaning it is only in relation
to the preconceptions of the perceiver.
if we follow the organic logic of this piece we might construct a narrative
taking us from the golden nuggets entwined within its roots, along the
twisting umbilical of the stem, concluding with the cluster of fruit-like
balls. This narrative would seem to refer to the perverse alchemic transformation
of natural resources into the products and powerplays of capitalism,
yet however tempting this reading might appear we have no way of knowing
whether it was intended by the artist or not. In the material context
of the work, its component parts are less signifiers with discrete points
of reference than signs appropriated from common usage and abstracted
to their more phenomenological or formal status. In so far as the artist's
intentions are materially manifest they deconstruct any obvious narrative
reading, as is made clear by the woven wicker basket. On closer inspection
we realize that this has been intricately cast in bronze. Its original
and practical function has been compromised by this material transformation.
All that remains is its formal status as an object in the world of objects,
which, though the negation of any greater significance, serves as a
reminder of the complex layering of meaning elsewhere revealed by semiotics.
By the early
90s bronze had become Woodrow's principal medium for sculpture. Big
Money (1991) addresses the fundamental issues of birth, life
and death, but although these signifiers are inscribed on the work again
there is an ambiguity to the reading. Quite how big money enters the
equation is far from clear. If we choose to read this as symbolic of
capitalism's centrality to human endeavour, once again the responsibility
for that interpretation is ours. If we take the title literally, we
might note that the over-sized coin contains conceptually opposed representations
of the egg-sperm/earth-rocket motif on either face. Life and death literally
rest on the turn of this precariously balanced coin, yet the near identical
form of both motifs invites us to explore either side without favour
not underestimate Woodrow's use of humour for deconstructing the gravidas
of his own discourse. The symbol of mother earth appears again in Runner
(1993), this time in the company of the sun and moon. Rich in associations
with Ptolemy, Copernicus and Galileo, cosmology can be taken as an index
for humankind's ontological understanding of its place within the greater
scheme of the universe. Here the ordering of that relationship is undermined
by the artist's own tongue-in-cheek mythologizing, the relative motions
of the planetary bodies governed by the more arbitrary gait of this
whimsical figure which returns us to the self-devouring construct of
the knife, fork and spoon.
of scale is yet another common concern running throughout the various
developmental stages in Woodrow's work. The over-sized cutlery in Empty
Grate is as menacing in its implication as the giant needle
in 6 PM
(1994). Indeed, in this same work the diminutive tree bearing human
fruit and the life-sized tea cup whose relative scale is rendered indeterminate
are equally disturbing. While the identity of each discrete element
is recognisably self-contained, the artist presents us with imagery
that is as discontinuous in scale as it is devoid of associative connection.
Sense is only made of this configuration once we strip the components
of their function as signifiers and relate to the work as a formal statement.
This demands an act of some determination on the part of the viewer
and forces a confrontation between our conception of the world as a
mental construct and the phenomenological estrangement of things in
In some sense,
the most recent work in this exhibition, Chariot
(1997), returns us to the earliest piece, Tricycle
with Tank. Not only are both works formally more self-contained
than many of the other installations included here, the suggestion of
arrested locomotion invites an obvious comparison. And yet their differences
are equally telling. In its method of construction Tricycle
with Tank invites us to make no absolute distinction between
host object and constructed image. Sharing a common materiality, the
distinction is purely conceptual. Following the analogy with the Hegelian
dialectic, we are forced to introduce the concept of 'becoming', the
transitional state which acknowledges an as yet unresolved synthesis.
The tricycle is arrested in the process of becoming the tank and a dialectical
tension exists between the two.
the formal similarities, we cannot say the same of Chariot.
From the superstructure of the wheeled platform to the bronze turtle
and glass tongs, each of its components are discreetly manifest and
individually articulated. In a material and procedural sense, the progression
in Woodrow's work has been from 'becoming' to 'become'. And yet, since
abandoning the cut-out works in 1987 Woodrow's conceptual games-playing
has become foregrounded by this same shift away from a self-exposing
material procedure. The component parts may now be more easily identifiable
as discrete elements, but the ideas inherent in the work retain that
same dialectical tension and, in the Hegelian sense, remain in the conceptual
limbo of 'becoming'.
of Woodrow's work are united by this dynamic logic. The work's reality
is governed by a constant juggling with unresolved oppositions, ultimately
only reconcilable by acknowledging its existential or phenomenological
itself, is not the issue. And yet in their illusiveness Woodrow's sculptures
invite us to question how meaning is determined and to what extent resolution
rests with the interpretive faculties of the individual viewer/reader.
At a time when fixity of meaning is increasingly equated with power
and manipulation, the slippage between such comfortable categorizations
as abstraction and representation, being and not being, disclosure and
withholding, is a completely appropriate strategy.
Text © Keith Patrick, London, 1997