For a while, Richard Woods does not answer the door to his studio in East London, and I have a chance to peer through the letterbox. Inside is a rainbow explosion of half finished or half abandoned spinning top-like mini sculptures, painted table legs on barrel like plinths.
These works, Table-Leg Sculptures, I had seen in his most recent show Handmade Modern at WORKS|PROJECTS in Bristol just a few weeks before. There is paint on the walls, on the floor, off-cut wood and tools…a ‘proper’ sculpture studio.
When I get inside however, it is fascinating to be taken up through the building. From the workshop atmosphere of the ground floor we ascend through various stages of more large scale sculptural production reaching, finally, on the top floor, a kind of design studio. This area has a very different feel, assistants click at computers, working on what look like Woods’ large scale architectural interventions and amongst them sits one of the pop-floorboard printed bean-bags. It’s a nice day, cold but sunny, so we go and sit at the park bench behind Woods’ studio so I can ask him some questions.
Richard Woods is part artist, part designer, craftsman and sometimes architect. Maybe you could also describe him as an interior decorator, DIY enthusiast or turbo-hobbyist and material tinkerer. You are as likely to see his work in a gallery or Biennial setting as you are on the walls of a private house or in the form of a red brick printed mug being sold on the John Lewis website for £7.
This is not to say that Woods isn’t selective about the work that he takes on, it’s just that he likes inhabiting a variety of different worlds and, he says, “I have a very short attention span.” I asked him whether he saw any differences or hierarchy in doing all these different types of production.
“I think they’re all the same. It’s a difficult question but I think what’s important to me is that my position as an artist is not quite in the art world and not quite in the design world. Or even not quite in the architecture world. I like that area in the middle. I certainly don’t see any hierarchy in what I do. I really like that work can be accessible and I like things that have a broad appeal. I’ll do a bunch of more design related work and then switch over or try out something that is more towards the gallery. I tend to have quite a few people who work for me and the reason for that is they all work on one or two projects each and then I’ll flit between them.”
“It sounds strange, but I don’t really give it a huge amount of thought. I like that in the design world maybe they get a little bit annoyed about the design work because there’s too much art in it and with the artwork then the art world gets a little bit annoyed because there’s too much design. I like to occupy that slightly abrasive position.”
The first time I encountered Woods’ work was his 2008 Liverpool Biennial commission Innovation-Investment-Progress. A giant printed floorboard surface applied to the floor of a former paint and hard-ware shop in the city centre with advert style signs saying things like ‘Save-WOW!-Save’ dressing the walls. At the time I wondered how they were made as the floorboard surface seemed both very handmade and absolutely glossy and smooth. The painting also confused me, looking sometimes like it was done by hand but then obviously mass produced on each of the boards and very stylised, almost smudged. “Its just block printed, like a potato print,” says Woods “we use house paint, not printing ink for example, so there is a certain amount of repulsion. That pattern is the paint not waiting to be squashed.”
I wanted to know about the work he started to make at art school (he attended Winchester Art School for his BA and then The Slade School of Fine Art for MA – graduating in 1990) and how this developed into what we know of his work today.
“While I was at Slade I was making big modular sculptures that were painted. They took a long time to make and actually the part I was most interested in was the painting of them at the end. In a way, I suppose, they were not hugely dissimilar to the work I make now in that they dealt with a host structure and then a surface.”
The time taken to make work as an artist working alone is something that Woods obviously enjoys not having to do anymore. He uses the word ‘we’ much more frequently in terms of the realisation of his work than ‘I’ and his website is not simply ‘Richard Woods’ but ‘Richard Woods Studio’ suggesting a place or ‘site’ rather than just a person. It’s clear the production and authorship is a collaborative effort and also allows him to undertake much larger scale commissions than if he was working solo. He says: “For the last five or six years I’ve always had quite a lot of people who have helped me. I tend to like collaborating; I like the sociable end of making art or design.”
One of Woods’ most intriguing commissions is the house he has Mock/Shock-Tudorised for art collector Adam Lindemann in Woodstock, New York. Woods was approached after Lindemann saw his exhibition Super-Tudor at Deitch projects, New York, in 2002 and asked to over-haul both the exterior and interiors of his house. Now the exterior looks something straight out of a fairy story with fake black wooden beams printed onto a surface attached to the exterior. “We didn’t change any of the exterior in Woodstock, we didn’t put extra roof bits on or anything. It’s all the shape it originally was.” Woods says, which is remarkable given how uncanny the finished exterior is. Inside is a mish-mash of patterns. The games room is blue grey green crazy paved and one of the living areas sports a limey sludgey green flower pattern.
Colour is very important in Woods’ work. “My colours tend to be influenced my first memories and the memories of growing up in the early seventies. At that point I remember my parents house, all the wallpapers tended to have a naturalistic theme and the narrative would be cottages or horses or floral etc. The colours were all plasticky. Early seventies colours, purples and oranges, lime greens. Very industrial colours.”
I wondered how long it would take for the environment/colours and patterns that Lindemann lives with to lose their novel value and become just part of the day to day furniture or wallpaper of the living spaces, “I think it probably doesn’t take very long”, he says, “Human beings are extraordinarily adaptable aren’t they? The man who lives in it has pretty extreme taste but I don’t think that he thinks of the environment as being that unusual”
Another interesting factor of the Woodstock commission is the way in which the work was sold to the collector. “All the artwork is, is a certificate that gives him the right to Tudorise a building he’s living in and use those patterns. Of course the in-joke is that, obviously, anyone can Tudorise their house. There is no ownership of that pattern. Normally it would be considered not such a great thing to do that, within the echelons of society that we operate in. It’s considered a kind of low rent thing to do isn’t it? It’s aspirational in one sense but then not very aspirational in another sense. I like the idea that Lindemann has bought into this absurdity.”
Woods would like to re-do the work eventually in a different context “I would love to do it again, but until he’s ready to move out we can’t. The idea is that Lindemann bought the rights to Tudorise whatever building or house he was living in. I would be quite happy, although maybe he would not, if he decided to sell up and move to another place and then Tudorise that. It would be great for me if the next place he was to live in was a 1950’s modernist house for example. The surface would be very different.”
New sculptures, shown at the Handmade Modern WORKS|PROJECTS show seem to move away from the larger scale higher profile architectural interventions and show a different side of Woods, more studio based work, far more intimate and ambiguous. I really loved the wobbly, coloured smaller works (ones that I had spied through his studio letter box) and also the larger scale flag-like prints (almost like paintings or panels this time) or different, almost abstract, patterns and motifs. I asked him if this was a break from his usual style of working.
“They take a few days to make as opposed to a few months. I like that different pace. It’s funny doing those little sculptures because, as I said, we are working on them a lot at the moment but then something else will come off the back of doing them – potentially something larger again or architectural. That’s really interesting I think, the different lines of thought that go through the overarching practice.”
These sculptures, paired with the black and white motif works, seemed to conjure up a narrative that I had not seen in Woods’ work before. The work seems to be ‘working’ together in a new way. Of course Woods’ work has not always been large scale printed architectural interventions, “It’s the printed works that ends up being what I’m known for,” he says. “I suppose in all of my work as well as the technical end of it, there is also the narrative or thematic element…so the subject matter is always DIY or styles or home improvement. I like the idea that those works are just table legs but have a narrative of say Victoriana or Georgian style and that narrative fights against the reality of them as table legs.”
I had written endless interpretations of the Black and White Mono Print works in my notebook, they seemed to me to be very ancient, semiotic messages from the past. “The interesting thing about those kinds of motifs,” he says “is that they can be and are sometimes very ancient and they can be attached to very different historical moments. For me they were all taken from mock-Tudor housing estates, but it’s all open for interpretation, that type of pattern is very fluid.”
I was curious to know about Woods’ influences and where he took his inspiration from, both formatively and recently. Woods grew up in Chester. I asked if the experience of growing up there had had any influence on the kind of architectural incongruence and slightly un-real pattern and decorational styles he was drawn to.
“Well I’ve always been interested in that notion of ‘the real’. Chester lives off this strange aesthetic. It’s a kind of Roman/Tudor town, but obviously almost everything that’s there is Victorian. It’s the worst kept secret but, then nobody seems to really mind. I enjoy that. That style of pattern and architecture, it started out in one period and then it mutated a little bit then it mutated again and then mutates again. I don’t think any kind of time period has ownership over it. It has very different interesting connotations. Chester’s brilliant for that, it was like growing up in a kind of theme-park.”
The influences for Woods’ work come from a variety of different sources and not, it seems, primarily from the art world. “My influences are architecture or music etc. and not necessarily artists,” he says. “When I was at college I was really into literature. I liked Gore Vidal, which is a bizarre choice, but I really enjoyed reading his books. Being even weirder, my biggest influence at college was William Morris. Even though, at the Slade, you kind of kept that sort of thing a secret. I don’t know what was worse Gore Vidal or William Morris.” What about now? “I’m really interested in architecture. I like public spaces and I enjoy working with architects and that gives me a thrill, to be honest more so than working in the art world.”
William Morris is an interesting example of an artist, like Woods, that seems to straddle multiple creative worlds. “His vision for his work was infinitely more interesting than the other Pre-Raphaelites and his work was head and shoulders above what other people were up to at the time. But it’s strange isn’t it, how somebody gets labeled? For example I’m sure if Morris had known the context in which his stuff was going to end up being seen, wouldn’t he be absolutely horrified? The designs themselves, however, were incredibly contemporary and progressive.”
“But then I suppose that’s interesting isn’t it? You’re not really ever in control.”
Words: Sacha Waldron
Images (from top):
1. Photograph by Amy Barkow. Courtesy Perry Rubenstein Gallery and the artist.
2. Courtesy Jacob Wolff
3. Courtesy John Lewis website
4. Innovation-Investment-Progress. Richard Woods. Commissioned by Liverpool Biennial International 08
5. Photograph by Amy Barkow. Courtesy Perry Rubenstein Gallery and the artist.
6. Handmade Modern (Installation View), Richard Woods. WORKS|PROJECTS, Bristol
7. Hand Painted Table Leg Sculptures (Installation view with Mock-Tudor Mono Prints in background), WORKS|PROJECTS, Bristol. 2011
8. Handmade Modern (Installation View), Richard Woods. WORKS|PROJECTS, Bristol
9. Courtesy Jacob Wolff
Info: Richard Woods is an artist who was born in Chester and lives and works in London, UK. His work can be seen until 25th February 2012 in Painting Show at Eastside Projects, Birmingham. Richard is represented by WORKS|PROJECTS, Bristol
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