Monday, 18 July 2016

You're in for a big surprise...

“‘Madame Bridgette’ by Clare Woods is another example of an artist enjoying paint as a medium and is one that you really have to see in the flesh to get a sense of its sumptuous colour and thick, intense glossy sheen created by its metal surface and use of gloss/enamel paints.”
'Madame Bridgette' (2005)
It isn’t everyday that one gets the opportunity to quote oneself from over ten years ago! This observation was taken from an essay I wrote about the John Moores Painting Prize in 2006. It was my first (of what has become a customary tradition) visit to Liverpool and the Biennial whilst a student in my first year of my Fine Art degree. Fast forward ten years and here I am writing about my third encounter with Clare Woods’ paintings whose solo show has just opened at Taunton’s Hestercombe Gallery. The quote is important, not just sentimentally, nor in its apparent use of stating the obvious, but taps into a time when I knew a lot less about art so was more instinctive and open-minded in my opinions –something that I am ever conscious of trying to in-part retain.  
Therefore, I stick by you, slightly grammatically incorrect essay quote from 2006! In that vein I begin (though not promising that the grammar will be much better). Clare Woods is still an artist that explicitly and almost sculpturally enjoys the stuff of paint (incidentally she trained as a sculptor at Bath College of art, once describing herself as 'a frustrated sculptor'). In her earlier work especially, paint is wielded like a sculptural medium; poured, dripped, scraped, smoothed, spread and brushed; these the more gestural of marks made either with brush or left alone to spread and bleed into other colours creating cellular meiosis-like pools, as gloss naturally does when poured onto a flat surface. In other areas of her paintings semi-representational lines and forms are crisply almost ‘cut’ into the surface creating structure and shape against the looser expressive marks. Upstairs in the largest room this is demonstrated with gusto in the devouringly huge (its floor to ceiling high) painting ‘Monster Field’ (2008).
'Monster Field' (2008)
The beauty of painting this and many of her early works on aluminium is that the slick, hard surface is perfect for creating those pools of paint and manipulation of it with brush or palette knife, yet possibly what is the most impressive in this work is the intense use of colour and dynamic composition. Some of Wood’s later paintings become more murky and muddy in their colour palette and feel less pleasing visually than the vibrancy and energy of paintings like ‘Monster Field’ (but perhaps offer a truer depiction of natural landscape colours?). They are ‘high’ colour as my friend (a painter) pointed out to me; as though someone has boosted the contrast and intensity settings on a digital image to dangerous levels of distortion. That distortion being another crucial factor in Woods' paintings which are ‘derived from photographs’ and sit mostly in abstraction but have representational forms within them that suggest fences, bracken, shrubbery, trees, hills or plough furrows. These colours, mark making and forms are in-turn composed into an energetic outcome that is almost musical in the way it is rhythmically paced to lead your eye around its surface. If these are influenced and inspired from the natural landscape then they are heightened and ambiguous; open to numerous interpretations from their viewers, but in their passion for paint  and drama seem to fit their being likened to the Romantic tradition of painting.
'Cemetery Bends' (2009)
In ‘Cemetery Bends’ (2009) the wavering between abstraction and representation is clearer and with a darker element of moodiness to it that suggests an eerie, strange forest; fantasy mixed with darkness of the  likes of the Brothers Grimm. Although the majority of Woods' paintings are relatively flat they have depth in their layers of applied paint as well as a reflective depth created from the sheen of the enamel and gloss paint which make interesting surfaces to explore for longer. Some of this layering and cutting (referred to earlier) ties Woods' paintings closer to that of the Danish born artist, Per Kirkeby, whose paintings she cites as looking at. I too first remember seeing Per Kikeby’s paintings in a solo exhibition at Tate Modern in 2009, they are heavily inspired by geology, soil and the landscape and in many cases on as an ambitious scale (and even bigger) as Clare Woods. In Kirkeby’s case, some of his paintings almost burry you alive in their enormity and it’s the larger scale Woods’ paintings that I think work best. They envelope the viewer with their glistening surfaces and intimacy of the luxuriousness of the paint, yet at the same time they push you away with areas of hard, flatter grid-like lines and angles that suggest a more desolate vision of landscape than a thriving one.... For a long time I battled with deciding whether Wood’s paintings were too slick or whether I was reading too much into the type of paint rather than looking at the way it was manipulated; because when one looks at the actual painting within them they feel a lot more anxious and intuitive than being dismissed as pretty patterns and I have come to like them more after reading of the artist’s relationship to making her paintings;  “Anxiety and fear are in the background of everything I do...I think that’s what keeps me going there’s always a fear. There’s always a fear of something.”* In this way the work becomes more like reading a Rorschach blot in being open to interpretation.
'The Last Best Hope' (2014)
In another room there are a series of works influenced by First World War landscapes and ideas around painters such as Paul Nash; the tension in these being slightly different to that of the more overtly landscape ones. I’d love to know if Clare Woods paints with a title in mind or whether the title comes after? As with these and nearly all her works, the title either anchors or shifts how the work is then viewed. I prefer looking without knowing the title first.
Overall though in this retrospective, I think I like the earlier paintings better, the most recent being done completely in oil and on a more chromatic colour scale (i.e. tones of pink or yellow). These newer works feel so different and less lively so don’t really captivate my attention in the same way as the earlier pieces. Similarly the more representational her paintings get the less I feel drawn in. A nest, a head, a figure; whilst still abstract the more recognisable they are, the more clumsy they feel, and less sculptural in my opinion because they become less about the paint and more about the image. There is something familiarly 'Francis Bacon-like' in the layering of paint and composition of space in the newer paintings but I’m not quite sure if they feel finished or like a step in the beginning of a new direction? They are all, however, works of an artist who is exploratory, thinking and adapting so it will be interesting to see where using oils takes Woods next.
'Untitled Diptych Part I' (2002)
At Hestercombe Clare Woods’ paintings feel more ambitious and more confrontational in their ‘wildness’ in contrast to the softer, well kept formal gardens behind the house, but in keeping with the grandness of John Bampfylde’s landscaping elsewhere. There is a lot to see and mostly it works really well except for the oil paintings on the stairs which I’ve already expressed that I'm not keen on anyway (but may be too far away to be seen) and one piece that fights with slightly awkward lighting and a purple ceiling. I think much has to be said as well for the windows of the gallery which at each exhibition have adopted their own matching detail; in this show appropriately in the form of a long red paint streak. Above all however I stress as I observed in 2006, the importance of seeing these works in person, as reproductions in photos does not quite do them justice. Like the Tania Kovats exhibition last year at Hestercombe and Michael Simpson at Spike, it should not be taken lightly how fortunate and important it is that the South West has access to these relevant, contemporary and inspiring shows and two of them being from painters! I think Clare Woods’ exhibition at Hestercombe rises to this without question.
Clare Woods ‘Clean Heart’ is on at Hestercombe Gallery until 30th October 2016: