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BILL WOODROW SCULPTURES 1981-1997 (Text from catalogue)
Mestna Galerija, Ljubljana, Slovenia 1997


Although 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 procedures.

Woodrow's 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.

Yet another 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.

Woodrow's 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.

Similar procedures 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.

Empty 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.

Aside from 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.

Pink 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.

Coins continue 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.

However, 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.

In Stem (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.

Similarly, 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 or prejudice.

We should 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.

Discontinuity 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 themselves.

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.

Whatever 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'.

All periods 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 'otherness'.

Meaning, 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

 
 
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