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Doublethink at Simon Lee Gallery (6 September–5 October 2019), Clare Woods' first solo exhibition in London in ten years, marks a change in direction in the artist's practice. For over 20 years, Woods has expanded from her initial training as a sculptor at Bath College of Art—where she received her BA in 1994—to create abstract paintings on large sheets of aluminium. By painting these flat on the floor or on trestles, Woods has greater freedom of movement to push and sweep paint across the surface, allowing for the medium to be manipulated in a manner akin to sculpture.
At Simon Lee Gallery, new motifs include flowers and her first self-portrait, titled Ownlife (2019), rendered in pale hues against a dark blue background, with the artist's facial features depicted in sparse dabs of paint. Having started her career as a landscape painter, Woods gradually moved to painting objects such as rocks and sculptures, followed by the human figure in recent years; all the while maintaining her distinct style, which comprises broad strokes of paint hovering between abstraction and figuration. Interested in the connection between the landscape and national trauma, Woods' early influences include British landscape painters such as Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland. In recent paintings, vulnerability and mortality are expressed through the human form and flowers, such as It's the end of the World as we know it (2019), a large vase of peonies in the midst of shedding petals.
In this conversation, which is an edited transcript of a talk between the artist and Jennifer Higgie held at Simon Lee Gallery on 19 September 2019, Woods discusses the technical and conceptual shifts in her practice.
I had been thinking about the show for a long time, and have been reading a lot of Orwell since the Brexit vote; it feels very contemporary of this moment. Doublethink is the idea of having contradictory views, and I think a lot of my work is about two extremes coming together and then meeting in the middle.
Titles are really important, and in the exhibition booklet I wanted to give people another way into the work. I've collected titles for years—I might be driving along and see a name or hear something on the radio, or read something. When the paintings are finished and I stand them up, I usually know straight away what the title will be, but I have no idea until that point.
None of the paintings are dictated by their titles, they always come at the end. The whole process is quite broken down, and the titling is one part of that.
All of the paintings are based on photographs. Without photography my work doesn't exist, so it's really important. Thousands and thousands of photographs are collected, which I select quite instinctively and draw, taking out everything that I don't need to just leave a very slight trace. There are a few lines holding the image together, and that's the image that then gets drawn onto the aluminium panels. I paint flat, so the painting is horizontal and that control is really important. When you're painting while standing up, you've got this very small area of control, whereas when I'm walking around the painting, I've got much more control of the movement and pressure of the brush. I studied sculpture, so when I'm making these I think of them as objects.
Yes, when I'm painting, all I'm really thinking about is colour and movement, and the movement of the brush and the weight of the brush against the surface. They're all on white gesso, so as you push colour onto the surface, light comes through, so you can get different colours through weight rather than pigment.
I think it's about having something that's grounded in reality—that I recognise and can relate to on whatever level, then unpick and rebuild. It does feel very much like making sculpture, but it's flat.
Before the internet, I'd go to friends' houses and ask to look at their photo albums; it didn't matter who was in the photographs, I just loved looking at them. Instagram has been amazing—I can trawl through thousands of photographs; but when painting, it's about pausing and stopping and trying to slow that process of looking down, even just for a few seconds.
It's incidental; it's about finding a source photograph and knowing I want to paint it. Sometimes I instantly know how it's going to work, other times I have to work things out.
I collect photographs and I have done for years. It used to be newspapers and magazines and now it's print-outs from the internet—they all feel the same, it doesn't matter the source of the photograph or what the photograph is of. I'm really interested in Man Ray because of his cropping, and I think that's always been quite an important part of my process, I've never really used a whole image. Annoying Ben (2019) is a painting of an arm and an elbow. The original photograph Man Ray took is of the whole person, and then he's got these white chalk pencil marks of where he wanted to crop, which changes the meaning of the image dramatically. The painting at the far end of the gallery, Tea Fixer (2019), is cropped at the knees—again, that was a very old photograph that I found, and there's no head in the photograph, and I think the cropping of it was what drew me to it.
The paintings are made in a very broken-down fashion. It involves dealing with a photograph, followed by drawing, then making the painting. The process of painting is quick, but it's very slow getting to that point.
I'm dealing with oil paint in the same way I'm dealing with plaster or another material. I don't intricately mix all the colours separately, I might just have four or five colours, and all of the tonal mixing happens on the painting. I paint them in one hit, because they need to be painted wet so I can mix.
It just makes the paint move. I've painted with enamel gloss for a long time, and in 2011 when I did the show at The Hepworth, I made these huge paintings and at the end I felt I couldn't do anything else with enamel. Adding the resin to the oil makes the oil physically act like the enamel gloss but with a much more complex range of tone.
It's almost the denial of being a painter, because I wasn't ever formally trained. I've kind of taught myself to use oil and to make paintings, but I've been doing it for a long time now.
It was through a conversation with Anouchka Grose, who wrote the catalogue essay for my show at Dundee Contemporary Arts three years ago, that I realised that there's no connection between the source images that I work with. Instead, they're all connected to me. After that realisation, I allowed myself to be more instinctive and less prescribed about the way I use source material. It's almost as if I was trying to justify it. Alongside being in therapy, I'm now able to look at myself for the first time in a long time; I never wanted to paint myself before. Also, the photograph that I worked on for this was very slight; I wanted to try and paint a face using very few brush marks. When you look at it very closely, there's not much in that painting.
In a way, that is my experience of painting, because I paint really close to the surface, and it's only at the end when I stand back that I can see what's really there.
Yes, because everything has an instinctive emotional response. Some of the photographs are found sources, and some of them I've taken.
The first time I ever painted flowers was two years ago, and it was from a photograph that I had taken—probably four years ago—in Venice during the biennale in a beautiful palazzo, which was really crumbly and sort of static in time. Life was carrying on outside on the Grand Canal, and then inside it was quite morbid—you know how Venice feels; it feels very fragile, although it's so grand. There was this big vase of dying peonies that I photographed, and I kept coming back to that photograph, but I thought, 'I can't paint flowers!' And then I just painted them, and it opened up a whole new way of thinking.
When I was thinking about this show, I was very much wanting to look at genres of still life and landscape and portraiture. The flowers felt very visceral, very internal, and they've informed quite a lot of the other paintings. Without the flower paintings, I couldn't have made that tree painting, for example, because I don't work on the paintings at the same time—one painting informs the next. It's very linear.
I don't know; it just felt so wrong. I questioned the need to paint still life. It was almost a rejection of the act of making a painting that someone's going to really like.
The only time I ever received a large number of flowers was when I was almost dying. Getting flowers when you're so ill; I struggled with it, but I knew I really wanted to paint them.
Yes. The flowers as you come in through the door, those were painted from a photograph of some flowers at the end of our staircase at home.
It's always about flattening the object and turning it into a drawing, then taking everything away so it's just a few lines. I used to paint landscapes, and then I started painting other things such as rocks, then sculpture, and then I moved onto heads. I prefer working from black and white photographs, as it gives me the space to project my own colours onto the image. Photography also allows me to capture certain forms. In the case of the flowers, the petals were dropping, and I just needed to capture that moment.
Lots of reasons, really. When I work in the studio, I can't have anyone else in the studio so I'm dragging these things around and it's much easier to drag something solid. I use masking tape, which I cut to make areas that are masked off, which obviously wouldn't work on a canvas. I like the freedom of movement and the way the brush can move really quickly on a smooth surface. Also, I don't like that bounce—the answering back—that happens when you paint on a canvas, even if it's stretched really tight.
Yes, it's a tree that I've been photographing for years in Austria. It's on the side of this mountain and it's the only visible tree; it's really odd. It's sort of hanging on for dear life and every year a bit more has broken off or it looks a bit battered. I became somewhat obsessed with its angle on the slope and wanted to paint it. I've painted it twice, and I don't tend to repaint anything because once I've painted an image, that tends to inform the next one.
Yes, the idea of being incredibly naked and vulnerable when you're in that position. It was painted from a black and white image; I've had it for about 25 years, I don't know its source.
No, that was just how I felt about it. I also chose it formally because I wanted to try and bring the background and the foreground together a bit more.
I did at the beginning, but I was so ill that if I hadn't done anything about it, I wouldn't be here. It really helped, and it hasn't hindered my creativity because it's allowed me to deal with a lot of other things that were holding me back, so it's been good.
It's always an ongoing conversation, but it's also very linear. It's like making an album, I guess; they've all got to work together and enhance each other. There is not one painting that sums up the whole practice, it's how they relate to each other. They've also got to exist in their own right when the show is over.
I get asked that a lot, and I go through phases of having these sort of love affairs and reading everything about certain artists, but they're mostly sculptors. At the moment it's Eva Hesse, whose sculptures are quite big whereas the paintings are quite small. I saw the paintings for the first time a couple years ago at Hauser & Wirth and I couldn't put the two together, I was trying to understand how they relate to each other. They feel very separate.
Very early on I looked to modern British artists such as Paul Nash, along with other painters who were looking at the landscape in times of trauma, after the First and Second World Wars, for example. I was at Goldsmith's in 1999, when being a female painter painting landscape was a little bit out on a limb and very uncool. I remember absolutely loving John Currin and Cecily Brown, who were a generation above me, along with Gary Hume.
I spent a long time trying to work out why I was painting landscape, and that's when I really started thinking about the connection between the landscape and national trauma. I'm quite interested to see whether what is happening now politically will influence painting. We see a lot more figurative painting now.
When I was living in London, I started following the Leominster Morris dancers, who dance in the landscape in response to what has happened there historically. I used to go off on the weekends and follow them and take photographs of the landscapes they were dancing in. The England—Wales border is quite interesting historically and there are not many people living there.
I didn't feel comfortable living in East London in the early nineties; I never felt comfortable coming out of my studio at night and I hated feeling like that all the time. And then we moved to the middle of nowhere and I found that really scary as well, so I realised it's not where I am that's making me feel this way, it's me.
It became part of the everyday, so eventually I couldn't see it anymore. And that's when my practice started to change. Alongside the landscape paintings, I always collected photographs of rocks and other natural objects, and it was at that point when I was working on The Hepworth Wakefield show and I started photographing these rock forms, which led me to painting sculpture, followed by heads and figures. It came from painting the landscape.
Self-portraits and still life at the moment, and working on smaller paintings. I find working in large-scale much easier. Painting small is really hard, because your movement is limited, whereas big paintings allow me to really move and press and be quite rough. —[O]
Born in 1972 in Hampshire, Clare Woods studied sculpture at Bath College of Art prior to receiving her MFA from Goldsmith's College, London in 1999. She is a sculptor-turned-painter and is also known for her prints and works on paper.
Clare Woods' paintings are defined by anthropomorphic, curving strokes of spatially impacting colour that depict abstract landscapes and more recently, the human figure. These images are rendered from photographic sources such as newspaper clippings, magazines, and her own photographs, which she traces onto huge aluminium panels before applying configurations of glossy enamel, acrylic, or oil paint. The image is painted flat on the studio floor or on trestles, allowing her movement and pressure upon the brush to manipulate the paint. Her skillful layering of paint and spatial manipulation of tonal contrast possess a distinctly sculptural dimension. In an interview with Florence Hallett for The Arts Desk in 2011, Woods stated, 'it's not about the image, it's more about the construction of the paint.'
Before 2011, Clare Woods focused primarily on landscape, exploring the genre's position in art history—particularly British landscape painting—along with the relationship of the body to the landscape. For her 2006 solo exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery, the artist presented three immense panels, 9 feet high and between 24 and 36 feet long; derived from photographs taken by the artist of sites of rural folk traditions and supernaturally charged places. Woods subverts the traditional landscape format that is defined by the horizon line, by focusing on overlooked patches of the environment, from bushy undergrowth to pools of water. There is an underlying mystery in these compositions, as seen in Daddy Witch (2008), part of the Arts Council Collection, which captures a moonlit pool of water interrupted by reflections of surrounding thicket.
The visceral, unsettling mood conveyed in such landscape paintings by Woods also transfers to her more recent works of the human figure. The artist began these psychologically charged compositions after a period of illness between 2011 and 2013. After this period, she began painting from cadavers, and became interested in artists such as Alberto Giacometti and Francis Bacon. Here, Woods continues featuring the compositional tension between solid and hollow space; foreground and background. In Victim of Geography, her 2017 solo exhibition at Dundee Contemporary Arts, she presented bodies laid bare across the picture—or in remote landscapes—vulnerable in their solitude and exposure.
Clare Woods lives and works in Herefordshire on the Welsh border. In 2012, she was commissioned by the Contemporary Art Society to create a permanent ceramic tiled mural for the Olympic Park in London. Collections with her work include: the British Council, London; Arken Museum of Modern Art, Denmark; Government Art Collection, London; Southampton City Art Gallery, London; Arts Council Collection, London. Woods' solo exhibitions include: Reality Dimmed at Mead Gallery, University of Warwick, Coventry (2018); The Dark Matter, Southampton City Gallery (2012); The Unquiet Head, The Hepworth Wakefield (2011). In 2016, she published a monograph covering 25 years of her practice, titled Strange Meetings.
'The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them... To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies.’
Simon Lee Gallery is proud to announce Doublethink, the first solo exhibition at the London gallery of British artist Clare Woods, who presents new paintings across both gallery floors.
Over the course of a career spanning more than twenty-five years Woods has developed a unique painterly language that is concerned with the moulding of an image in two dimensions. Her early practice as a sculptor continues to inform her exploration of physical form via the materiality of paint. Although at first concerned with landscape, a preoccupation with the human body and its connection to entropic themes of mortality, degeneration and disease has surfaced in the artist’s work. For Woods, the corporeality of her subject matter and the physical element of the paint are inextricably tangled up in one another. In these new works, Woods employs an often-bilious palette that subverts the viewer’s expectations of her virtuoso application of paint on aluminium. Defamiliarising the everyday, Woods probes the boundaries of figuration to challenge her audience’s experiences of fear, anxiety and the fundamentally destructive impulses of humankind.
Woods derives inspiration from found photographic sources such as newspaper clippings, magazines, and other diverse sources of visual ephemera that depict unsettling and often transgressive imagery. Yet it is not the origin of the image that is important to the artist, but rather the emotional response it triggers within her and its potential for reinterpretation or translation once painted. In Woods’ work painting cannot live without photography, the former offering an interpretation of the representation of reality presented by the latter. The artist’s approach to her source imagery involves editing visual data, frequently via cropping or repositioning, thus distancing it from its provenance, while nonetheless retaining a tangible relationship to the original. In this way, Woods’ painting teeters on the edge of legibility, excavating the source image through the physical act of painting and providing new content and context, while restoring a form–albeit intentionally disturbed and disturbing–to the original photograph.
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The disjunction between figuration and abstraction lies at the heart of Woods’ manipulation of her source imagery. These alterations can dramatically change the meaning of the work or the viewer’s emotional response. What happens out of the frame, what is lost, removed or invisible, becomes as important as what is seen. During the drawing process Woods conceptually empties an image, yet this information is replaced during the act of painting. The use of vigorous, expansive, brushwork, compositional distortion and abstract colour, remove the normality of the everyday and position it in the artificial, forcing the viewer to question their ability to analyse and decipher the content what is in front of them. Woods’ approach to painting reflects our over consumption of images in a world that treats banality and disaster in the same way: human stories are told in digital images, with the manipulation between the media, memory and reality allowing these images to be consumed with ease and without thought. The paintings in Doublethink confront this phenomenon head on, inviting us to review our responsibilities towards the processing of representational imagery.
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