Bill Woodrow

Curated by: Michael Davey

14 February 1984 - 3 March 1984
Opening Reception 25 February 2023 12am

East Gallery:

Bill Woodrow

British artist Bill Woodrow will present an exhibition of sculpture from February 14 to March 3, 1984.

Woodrow’s sculpture is a collection of remnants from our disposable society, presented back to us as contemporary narratives, alternately menacing and poetic. Tools used to produce the work are often products of the same urban waste which serve as the ‘host’ objects from which the sculptures are made.

The works to be exhibited at Mercer Union will be made from materials salvaged from the streets of Toronto. Woodrow is presently working as an artist in residence at the York University Fine Art Department.

Mercer Union

Trevor Gould
Parachute, Summer 1984

An important component to this show lies in the relationship that is presented by the coupling of Woodrow and Brenner. This is significant on two accounts. Firstly, both Woodrow and Brenner share a common “point of origin” in that they both spent their formative years under the tutelage at the St. Martins School of Art In England. (Woodrow is said to have been a student of Brenner’s at one point.) Secondly, both artists have been (or still are) on the leading “edge” of British sculpture at different points in time. Brenner in the sixties as part of the “New Generation” lead by Tucker, King and Caro, along with Ainsly, Louw, etc. Woodrow on the other hand falls into the contemporary classification of sculpture redirecting the focus back to its “objectness” but with certain important modifications which sets him apart from many of his peers, such as Kapoor, Opie and even Cragg.

The significance of this coupling resides in Brenner’s shift from the kind at work that he was previously concerned with. A type of work which became synonymous with the constructive principles of welded steel sculpture. A preoccupation dominated by a concern for spatial relations, where the works’ unity was determined by a part to whole relationship. The emphasis here lies in the process and materials. What is most significant in comparison to the dominant mode of production referred to as Modernist is that Brenner and Woodrow’s work stresses a tension imposed through the presentation of sculpture as presence and as discourse. The concern in the former is for how sculpture takes its place simultaneously as an event and literal object, in the world where it is totally present. In the latter the concern is for how sculpture functions as representation within a discourse of objects and images in a broader context of social meaning. This already points to an important shift in the production of sculpture from that set out previously by modernist tendencies. These tendencies can be summarised as a concern for a mutual juxtaposition of shapes (i.e. material, I beams, girders, etc.) so that each element has a mutual significance to the whole, through an opposition of contrast, similarity and so on. This then constitutes the meaning of the work.

By contrast, Woodrow’s work is radically different. It is pictorial, rather than stressing the importance of volumes in space. Many of his works are aligned and propped against the wall, as in Picnic, or attached to it, suspended like a picture as in Portrait of a Friend and the Chrome Scissors. However, it is not only the placement of the works and their emphasis on the frontal experience that prompts the reference to the pictorial, but also the emphasis placed on the images in the work, which recombine with the material from which they were constructed to provide a different kind of reading circulating as they do around the name given to the material as object, car hood, and the image made out of it. For example a parrot and machine pistol as images constructed out of the object car hood to form the work Parrot Fashion. A certain interdependence between the object and its image makes for some of the strongest works in the show. Parrot Fashion (not illustrated) is perhaps the best example.

Woodrow’s method of fabrication is a leader to the understanding of his work. The term appropriation is often used to describe his methodology. I would prefer to offer the term “montage,” which at the same time is applicable to Brenner’s work. Montage is a process which includes a lexical field consisting of the terms “assemble,” “build,” “join,” “unite,” “add,” “combine,” “link,” and “organise.” While this takes into account the works’ fabrication, it does not examine the complex relationship that is assembled through the combination of images and material.

The reading that I will propose for both Brenner and Woodrow is simple. It centres around the relationship of a word and a thing. Objects which have names, the words by which we call up their identities plus the meanings they engender. This is illustrated in Parrot Fashion a work which consists of a black motor car hood clamped at one corner and supported by a large outboard motor so that the hood stands upright like a large sail. Looking from behind there is a machine pistol and a parrot (actually a red macaw) perched looking through the opening in the hood. So that from the front we see the parrot only plus a very carefully preserved image of an eagle the trademark of the car, identified as a Thunderbird. This is the cue, the hinge around which the work revolves.

Thus the connection between material and object forms a semantic chain each pointing to the other for its significance Thunderbird becomes simultaneously the sound and referent of the images depicted. The outboard motor which provides the base for the work also stands as a metaphor providing the power to drive the piece Picnic functions in a like manner. Here the colour supplies the clue to the work. The blue motorcar hood out of which a simple fork is fabricated paired with the red Coca-Cola cooler takes on religious significance juxtaposed against the image of the gold crucifix in the cooler (I would call It a Catholic piece.) Out of the lid hangs an ammunition belt The colours red and blue recall particular references to early religious iconography. The fork links up with the Coca-Cola cooler to form the association “picnic.” It is the ammunition belt which ruptures this sequence of meanings presenting a set Of circumstances focusing on sectarian violence. A powerful work .

One could argue for the importance of Woodrows work (in some cases Brenner is as well) being a rebus. After all it is only after one has engaged in a linguistic reading of the objects and how they relate to each other and then proceed in detaching words from things and their meanings does one begin to lift off the surface layer of these works. Other works like Portrait of a Friend are less successful in that the construction of the work tends to mimic a face. While the mantel piece clocks stand for eyes, the car hood is nevertheless manipulated to read as nose, mouth, ear and so on complete with a pierced gold earring. Call of the Wild has similar shortcomings. Here the objects bear skin and radio, are too directly attached to their meanings. The call of the wild represented here by the empty “skin” recorded and amplified by unattached microphones, is ironically replaced by a transistor radio which only has the potential for sound. Decoy on the other hand reveals itself as a more complex work. There is a car hood placed on its end with negative shapes cut to form the objects, binoculars, bible and waterlilies. On one side of the door is an armchair on which rest the binoculars and on the other side is the pond with Lilies and the floating bible. From the vantage point of the armchair which waits to be occupied by an implied viewer one has a view of the pond framed by the car hood. In the place where one might expect to find a duck decoy lies a bible. A decoy functions to trick someone into believing something that is in fact nothing. The bible is a decoy not for ducks but for beliefs. Woodrow does not supply the answer. He only poses the questions and at best provides the clues presented by the works. It is up to the spectator to engage in the decoding of the work and enter into a deliberate reconstruction of its constitutive elements as they unfold into its “syntactic” structure

Included are three small wall pieces made out at single kitchen utensils. The Ice Hole and Surfacing are constructed out of aluminium pots and Chrome Scissors is made from an electric kettle that is suspended from the wall hanging from its electric cord. The scissors are poised in such a way that they might be used to free the object from its moorings. It is interesting to note that with the made object as distinct from the found object there is a relationship worth mentioning that extends beyond the actual physical bond that is established by the linkage of the metal bands from the constructed object to its source that is the negative spaces that are left by Woodrow cutting out the plan for the fabrication of the object. This reveals a progression based on a rising sequence at new dimensions moving from point to line, line to plane, and plane to three-dimensional object. On a formal level this stands for a demonstration of Euclidian geometry while at the same time the process is a metaphor of the complex combinations on the level of meanings in the work.

Brenner’s work can be read in a way similar to Woodrow’s. A major difference lies in the way that Brenner recoups objects from the “real world” such as chairs and tables, which constantly shift between their identity as furniture and as sculpture. For example in the Mystery at Life and Tahiti, real parts of tables are used but other parts such as table surfaces cut out of quarter inch plate steel are interchanged with table legs, changing the table’s function so that it is a simulacra of its model in the real world. For example, the chair that accompanies the table in Tahiti looks like a chair but it deviates from its function with the bicycle wheel attachment fixed to it, and the seat, which should normally be placed on top of the frame of the chair is placed underneath It, Establishing a complex relationship of the meaning of things. The bicycle mechanism generates the power to run the transistor radio and the little lights, strung out on stalks, placed amongst the plastic tulips on the surface of the table. This piece (as for the others in the show) has to be activated by the viewer, setting in motion a complex sequence of events passing through time.

In the Mystery at Life a handle protruding from a crushed oil drum, suspended above a table activates a mechanism taken from a talking toy doll. The drum is the “voice box” amplifying the synthetic child’s voice. My initial response to these works was to assume they were simply kinetic works. However, the mechanisms that set the works into operation do not do so in order to illustrate mechanized forms moving through time and space, constantly creating new relationships, but activated they disclose very specifically parts of the work in a sequence unfolding in time. The parallel here would be with the act of reading. An experience predicated by an introduction, which in this case is the viewer activating the work, moving through a sequence, or choosing to repeat it in a kind of “temporal loop” and finally ending the operation. In some works like Tahiti there is a short delay between initiation and response, so that the work speaks behind one’s back as it were catching one by surprise when moving on to the next piece. Thus these events reveal the “textual structure” of the work and its complex organisation which constitutes it’s overall design.

In the Heart of a Dog (not illustrated) a cage is placed on a four legged pedestal. Below it are housed the batteries that run the work. The work is activated by standing on a pressure switch. Inside the cage two mechanical toy dogs with their “skin” removed are placed alongside a row of metal bombs. When activated, the dogs bark and jump up and down in the same spot, clanging their tail against the sides at the cage, provoking an unnerving response. The heart of the dog, an exposed toy mechanism, associated with an instrument of war recombine to form dogs of war. A reference to mercenaries, who, as it has been adequately demonstrated, are “heartless” machines of destruction.

The one aspect of Brenner’s new work which for me is still problematic for example is the way in which the handle is fixed to the drum In The Mystery at Life. It is evidence that Brenner’s previous formal training still rules with respect to the problem presented in attaching the handle to the drum. Much of its construction is unnecessary but functions to satisfy the design element of placing shapes in space. However, the works do succeed, as do Woodrow’s, in resituating the practice of sculpture and its significance with respect to its place and discourse in the world. The parallel between Woodrow and Brenner lies in their use and reference to “ordinary” objects in the world. In many ways the discourse that characterises these works is that the literal reading is frustrated, undermining a mimetic reading and generating a figurative one at the level of semiosis. A return to the paradigmatic structure surrounding individual words as they are attached to objects, and then again those objects as they are attached to the world.