Christopher Wood RSW
/ essay    





New Ground


Professor Richard Demarco
foreword to 2004 catalogue
Solo exhibition at The Bonham, Edinburgh

‘Collage’ in French means simply to paste or glue. Now it refers to a well-known and tested pictorial technique, originating the avant-garde movements, which characterised the first two decades of the 20th century world of European art.

The technique was endorsed by the Surrealists, notably, Max Ernst and Hans Arp, and its origins in the theories and actions of the Dadaist artists who found it necessary to protest against the obscenity of the First World War. They questioned the concepts of art making to the breaking point.

‘Collage’ can be clearly associated with the two great masters of The School of Paris, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. In their efforts to establish the Cubist principles, which gave impetus to the Modern Movement in Europe, they experimented with the use of collage in their paintings to inspire succeeding generations of painters.

In 1912, Georges Braque began his experimentation with materials and substances not hitherto associated with the painter’s palette. He mixed sand, sawdust and metal filings with the pigmentation of his oil paint. This daring mixture made tangible the surface of his canvas as well as adding an extra dimension of pure visual texture.

At the same time, Pablo Picasso experimented with his painting methods. Like Braque, he brought this idea of Cubist reality to an advanced intellectual dimension by experimenting in ‘papiers collies’, that is, in compositions with pasted papers.

Acknowledging the experiments of Braque and Picasso, Christopher Wood has moved to completely abstract non-representational paintings, questioning deeply the relationship between pictorial and visual realities. He has done so by a subtle and successful use of collage and reveals a deep respect for the world of late 20th century masters, particularly Antoni Tapies and Alberto Burri. They defined the spirit of modernism by the distinctive ways in which they experimented with the stuff and substance of materials. Christopher Wood has taken the risk of freeing himself from the subject matter which has given him his reputation as a gifted landscapist. He is now a painter of what I must regard as ‘mindscapes’.

However, these new paintings are possessed of the distinctive character associated with his work over the past ten years, particularly in the degree of sheer physical energy release which they make manifest.

The point of departure for his new work can be associated with the birth just over one year ago of his son, Max. His experience of fatherhood has caused him to reflect on his role not only as a father but also as the son of his own father. He is focussing thus on the ineffable mystery of human life and the way in which he acknowledges this is through the act of painting.

Christopher was this year honoured with professional membership of the Society of Scottish Artists. In their most recent exhibition at The Royal Scottish Academy, he was awarded a prize for his painting entitled ‘Birth’. It was a bold abstraction and possessed of a quality beyond the limits of aesthetic values. It could be regarded, like all meaningful art, as a painting ascending to the condition of prayer.

Christopher Wood is an artist who could be regarded as a contemporary Scottish Colourist because colour is a dominant factor in the ways which he has found of depicting the ever-changing effects of light and weather typically Scottish, particularly those associated with Scotland’s shorelines where tidal forces create a dramatic encounter between land and sea.
Christopher Wood’s use of colour is given a special significance by the confident draftmanship inherent in every paint-laden brushstroke applied to the surface of his canvas.

Christopher Wood could have easily remained content to make paintings which come into being through his rigorous professionalism, but now he feels the need to challenge himself by including within his true and tested painting methods the element of collage. In this way, he is reminding himself that Georges Braque and Picasso must still be taken into account.
Picasso pushed beyond Braque by a daring use of non-art material and integrating an identifiable slice of the real world – a piece of painted oilcloth printed with an image of caning associated with café tables and chairs into one of his paintings – and so “collage” was born.
It came into being in 1912 in his painting entitled ‘Still Life with Chair’.

Picasso had daringly placed a product of mass production into the stuff and substance of its traditional opposite – the handmade painting.

Collage gave Picasso and Braque bolder and clearer shapes to play with and these are the shapes which are beginning to appear in Christopher Wood’s latest works.

Christopher Wood is also well aware of the challenge given to him by the Italian artist, Alberto Burri who died in 1996. He was born 1918, in the Umbrian town of Citta de Castello. His experience as an army doctor and prisoner of war in Texas led him to become a painter. In 1948, he abandoned figurative painting and began making abstract work with other materials, particularly tar and pumice stone. In the fifties, he made his art using canvas sacking, resulting in the famous ‘Sacchi Series’. Then he used iron, wood, earth and the effects of fire. In the eighties, he used plastic with a particular delight in cellotex. His career was an adventure, evolving always through risk taking – his experiments with collage involved sewn, burned, scarred, and stained raw materials.

Another challenge lies in the work of Antonio Tapies. He has recently given Christopher Wood much food for thought. Antoni Tapies is a painter inspired by graffiti, imprints, sketches and glyphs. His works are metaphysical walls arising, as he says, from dust, ashes, earth, as well as destructive and cataclysmic forces, all well considered in a meditative view of the Cosmos. He, like Christopher Wood, is concerned with the history of ideas and the influence of philosophy upon contemporary art.

Tapies is inspired by Heraclitus who believed that everything changes and at the same time remains identical.

This state of constant flux is expressed in his use of latex, emulsion and tar applied in thick layers inscribed with signs and symbols – triangles, circles, crosses. Tapies provides Christopher Wood with his profound thoughts, not only on avant garde painting but on a heady mixture of Marxism, Surrealism, psychoanalysis and the new physics. Along with those influences, Tapies had also to take into account the generation of artists who immediately preceded him. Outstanding among this generation was Jean Fautrier who thought that painting should perpetually destroy and re-invent itself and he practised his creed. He was the initiator of informal painting – his aim was to promote a language of ‘new signs’ – a lyrical abstractionism. This is precisely what Christopher Wood knows he must achieve.

Following Braque and Picasso, Fautrier inspired Burri and Tapies and, like them, he represents a beacon of light guiding the painters of today towards new ways of expressing the visual world through the age-old process of making painted marks on a two dimensional surface. Among these painters, Christopher Wood can be identified as someone who has already contributed a distinctive body of work. He continues to reassure those attracted to his art that, although he works resolutely with his eyes fixed on the international stage of contemporary art world, his viewpoint remains steadfastly and recognisably identified with Scotland.

©Professor Richard Demarco
March 2004