Bill Woodrow brings recycled objects and themes to ecological show at Royal Academy

By Mark Sheerin | 05 November 2013

Exhibition review: Bill Woodrow RA, Royal Academy of Arts: Burlington Gardens, London, November 7 2013 – February 16 2014

Black and white photo of seven TV sets with smashed screens and the words TV Blind spelled in broken glass
Bill Woodrow RA, T.V. Blind (1979)© Collection of the artist
He may not be abstract, but the sculptures of Bill Woodrow can frequently take some describing. Red Monkey is a case in point.

The primate, made from sheet metal, perches on a filing cabinet to which is also fixed a bowling ball and a replica gun. The unit’s drawers have been removed and the sides eviscerated to create  three trails to three more bowling balls. On each has been mounted a sheet metal plate and fork.

Those drawers have been stood on end some five metres from their origin and the coup de grace is a row of three yellow missiles which take the place of skittles. The naughty monkey, if this be his work, is in danger of starting a war. Given the piece’s date, 1985, the stakes are pretty high.

Royal Academician Bill Woodrow may be the same generation as Antony Gormley and Anish Kapoor, but he could hardly be more different. He is more inventive than either and arguably a much more relevant artist.

In 1979 he attacks the banality of mass media with a piece called TV Blind; it features seven smashed television sets – you can just about hear them pop. In ‘83 he makes work about the many hi-jackings on the news, slicing open a red suitcase to puddle the fabric over the floor like blood.

Scullpture of a gorilla with ceramic skull and blue blocklike body
Bill Woodrow RA, Ultramarine Navigator, 2005© Collection of the artist. Photo Prudence Cuming Associates
And before this prolific decade was out, he makes a piece called For Queen and Country, in which a veteran lurches forward on a pair of crutches which help spell out the words Royal Reminder, or if you will, also Royal Remainder.

Given the current role of our armed forces, you might think this artist would still be spitting feathers - but no. His most recent work reveals environmental concerns, specifically the lives of indigenous people from around the planet.

Working on a smaller and more intimate scale, Woodrow gives us native Americans bringing home a dead anaconda, inuits spearing seals and a pair of allegorical settlements at either end of a river. In each case the model village buildings are crowned with a deer skull and gold covered hazel branches. It is almost folky.

As the show ably demonstrates, this artist is famous for his work in series. His fossil works include a telephone encased in concrete. His breakdown works include a dismantled hoover laid out before a wooden replica. And Red Monkey, as discussed above, is an example of his cut out works.

Given the way he recycles white goods and bike frames, you might call Woodrow an ecologist. This is nowhere more apt than a later series of works which fall under the title Beekeeper. The artist is now a qualified beekeeper, but in the late 90s he was already an interested onlooker.

As a result, his work adopts a honeycomb motif and a piece like Cell features a layer of waxy socks in any one of which you might expect to find a giant pupating bee. Two grubs rest on overhanging trays. Bee and man might live in harmony, but here the bees here have the upper hand.

This retrospective spans 50 years and gives us every chance to see the tireless way Woodrow moves through and exhausts formal and thematic ideas. Despite enjoying his first solo show at Whitechapel during his early 20s, this artist was never content to rest on his laurels.

One of the most playful works is also the most macabre. Ultramarine Navigator is a ceramic gorilla skull, attached to a squat body coated in a bright blue laminate. The bone is attached to the plinth by a gold thread. It is at once a piece of joyous play and ominous devolution.

But like all the work here in Burlington Gardens, his ape is open ended. Woodrow’s work is a concrete poetry which makes plenty of abstract work look like prose.

  • Open 10am-6pm daily (10pm Friday). Admission £4-£9 (free for under-12s). Book online.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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Visit Mark Sheerin’s contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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