Issue Number: 95
Fiona Maddocks visits the sculptor Bill Woodrow RA in his London studio and finds his minimal surroundings free him from distractions
No man-made edifice can ever truly be called featureless but Bill Woodrow RA’s south London studio gets near.
A cavernous industrial space with fluorescent strip lights, bare walls and overhead daylight partially shuttered from the afternoon sun, it has no interruptions to divert the eye. This is precisely what the sculptor intended: ‘The fact that there are no side windows and no columns makes it beautiful as a studio. I can see my work without distraction.’
Once home to a butter factory, the building had just been turned into small units for light industry when Woodrow arrived. At that time, he was the lone artist, busy using objects found on dumps and cutting up fridges, washing machines, office cabinets and other junk, delighted to recycle and to create anew from existing materials.
Since his neighbours were a cash and carry firm and a kitchen outfitter, they doubtless provided him with ample raw material. His career was just taking off and his name was associated with Tony Cragg RA, Richard Deacon RA and the New British Sculpture of the early 1980s.
Since then, Woodrow has moved on from discarded consumer goods to make distinctive, bold bronze castings. The small industries have long gone. Now, thanks to a tipoff from Woodrow, the rest of the block is owned by Anish Kapoor RA, whose massive, monolithic forms are as far from the compendious structures of his neighbour as anything can be.
In Woodrow’s sculpture, the process of assembly is key to the experience of looking: in the middle of the huge floor space, half a dozen maquettes are on display, consisting of delicate twigs, twisted by nature, positioned on plinthlike cardboard bases, small clay heads shrouded within.
Eventually these will be cast in bronze and painted, and the cardboard bases remade in coloured, laminated MDF, thereby retaining the sense of different components so characteristic of his work.
Whereas some artists’ studios have a palpable sense of chaos, and form living crucibles out of which art spills, Woodrow’s is the opposite: contained, ordered, almost nothing extraneous on the various workbenches pushed to the perimeter walls. This reflects his creative approach: ‘I have to have something to do, something I’ve planned before I start, even if I don’t quite know how it will end up. This is different from some artists who are happier trying things out until something emerges. All my work interconnects,
with ideas moving from one body of work to another.’
This is visible all around the studio. Books, a regular Woodrow component, feature in another twig assemblage. Why? ‘I suppose that it’s easiest to call them symbols of accumulated knowledge. They have always appeared in my sculpture in different guises.’ Elsewhere, a dozen or so clay animals – polar bears and elephants – which he has shaped into candlesticks, are grouped together. Next to them are several Cyclops-like heads, their purpose as yet unknown.
Over the past six years Woodrow, who studied at St Martin’s School of Art in the late 1960s and was a Turner Prize finalist in 1986, has made a series of sculptures on the theme of bee-keeping. Several small, upturned straw baskets – technically known as ‘skeps’ – have been turned into wry, scarecrow-style faces. On one wall, a long rack hangs, from which are suspended fourteen glass pods, each suffused with a yellow-amber colour and each incubating a mysterious wax-gold embryo.
There is an air of alchemical mystery about the construction (above). Woodrow is reluctant to venture a precise meaning. ‘It’s a fantasy, really, but I had in mind a sort of production line, with the gold representing developing pupae.’ Called, with enigmatic simplicity, Rack 14, it will be shown in the Summer Exhibition, which is coordinated this year by Woodrow, alongside painter Paul Huxley RA and architect Ian Ritchie RA.
Woodrow confesses to being a new recruit to this often maligned but much loved and vital Royal Academy fixture. ‘My attitude has changed over the years. Before I became a member in 2002, I wouldn’t have anything to do with it, and I’m not sure I had even attended it until I exhibited,’ he explains. ‘Now, having been a selector – and the task is incredibly difficult – I actually think it’s a key event in terms of the British art scene.’
The theme of the Summer Exhibition this year is ‘Light’: ‘It’s a pretty open idea, and central to any work of art, so we hope this will prompt all kinds of responses.’
Woodrow has a stern attitude towards Academicians who refuse to submit work, whether out of indifference or snobbery. He lays down the gauntlet with gruff amiability.
‘I do think all members should try it at least once. It can do no harm. If a work is good, it should be able to stand up in any company, even if it is not the company you would normally choose to keep,’ he says with the zeal of a convert.
‘There is a wonderful democracy about it, which can be frustrating and annoying, but at the same time it can be very stimulating and refreshing.’
Bill Woodrow RA is a selector for the Summer Exhibition 2007, Main Galleries, Royal Academy of Arts (020 7300 8000), 11 June–19 Aug; his work features in the biennial Sculpture in the Close, Jesus College, Cambridge (01223 339455), 24 June–31 July
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