Christopher Wood RSW
CONTEMPORARY SCOTTISH ARTIST
/ new ground  

The Glasgow Art Club Fellowship Exhibition
Foreword by Iain Gale


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... there be Dragons
'...there be Dragons'
Awarded the Glasgow Arts Club Fellowship, RSW 2005.

Walking through the rooms of Christopher Wood's airy, late Georgian house, perched above the East Lothian shoreline is not unlike taking a trip through the artist's mind. Every wall is hung with his work: from the earliest experiments of the mid Eighties to recent paintings, some destined for this exhibition. At every turn you find yourself making cross-references between the works and so it becomes possible, even without help from the artist, to construct a time scale of his development as a painter. Here are the landscapes with which he made his name and close by one of those from a few years earlier, painted in southern France, en plein air and appearing very different from his latest work.

For the past few years now Wood has worked in an increasingly abstract format. He readily admits to the early inspiration of Nicholas de Stael and, while it has taken a little time to reach a place where he feels comfortable, it is equally clear that such historical reference is no longer essential.

The word which most readily comes to mind, as I move among Wood's new paintings is 'visceral'. There is something deeply intuitive about these works: alternately insistent, lyrical, emphatic and searingly emotive. This is painting from the heart, in its purest form. Wood is the first to admit that his chief sources of inspiration are profoundly personal, ranging from the birth of his first child, three and a half years ago to recent bereavement. There is certainly a sense of catharsis here, of painting out the emotion, but it is also impossible to deny the exuberant optimism of exploration. The idea that while paint is a means of self expression, it is also an agent of self-discovery.

The first painting in this new direction Wood called simply 'New Ground'. In it he began to experiment with collage. The language of his familiar landscapes was still there as an anchor, but now this was no longer just a painting. It was an object. Process too began to become increasingly important. In a similar fashion to the 1950s master Alberto Burri, Wood applied large pieces of plain, brown hessian to create a matiere-inspired abstraction, redolent of the emotional scars which articulate human experience. Not only though did he add fabric to his canvas, but he also began to be more aware of the possibilities of subtracting: scraping away paint and scoring the surface. Here on occasion his work seems to move from Burri towards his contemporaries in post-war Paris: Tapies and Fautrier. At times Wood stands back and, with an uncanny ability to know precisely just what is enough, takes up a cloth, and wipes his surface almost smooth. The prime example is ‘Breathe’, which he is prepared to leave, instinctively, at a point where the impasto dries to conjure a hieroglyph or even, in the spirit of Franz Kline, a Japanese haiku.

The undeniable, at times almost human presence within Wood's canvases is not always quite so benign. Paintings such as the huge ‘Cold Moon Rising’ have an aggressive, dominating spirit, driven perhaps by inner conflict. Indeed the sense of tension within such a piece as 'Intrusion' not only holds it together but ensures that the eye and the mind are constantly engaged. Similarly, in ‘Equivalence' he allows us a glimpse of the void - drawing us into its ambient depths and leaving us breathless with a vision of the infinite. These are works which demand time from the viewer and repay it in equal measure.

It is significant that Wood chose to call another of the early works in his journey towards abstraction '…there be Dragons', ostensibly a reference to the old map-makers' habit of writing this phrase at the ends of their known world. The title emphasises just how uncertain the artist was at the time about where his art might be going. But the words also imply a typically dogged determination to venture into the unknown. Again this work can be interpreted in the manner of a landscape, its horizon simply given a ninety degree turn or seen from the air as with the work of the great St Ives artist Peter Lanyon. Indeed, it is not too presumptious to suggest that the spirit of St Ives haunts Wood's house. Again the mind constantly makes connections. Specifically in the fact that, while abstraction is his principle direction, Wood continues to produce such paintings as ‘Red Headland, Embrace’ which is obviously intended to function primarily in figurative terms. While this might come as a surprise to some, it is not uncommon and significantly an artist who comes immediately to mind is the late Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, the St Ives Colourist whose exuberant abstract paintings were fuelled throughout her life by studies of the landscape. Like Barns-Graham and her Cornish coterie: Nicholson, Frost, Wells, et al, Wood is affected by his surroundings. Rooted to his place in the world.

Standing in his studio, with the light flooding in from the seaward window, you begin to appreciate how this affects not only his choice of palette, but his consummate understanding of how paint works. How it reflects and absorbs the light and how it can be manipulated to create secret harmonies particular to a time of day or change in the weather. This, surely is what gives Wood's art its convincing subtlety.

Unusually for a contemporary abstract artist, Wood delights in titles, although they are not always necessary. When he does use them though they bring just enough of a clue to a work to fire the imagination without numbing the effect. Typical is 'I Can’t Quite Remember', the title of a sublime, multi-layered painting whose presence might best merit the label 'totemic'. More than any of the works here it testifies to Wood's increasing ability to succeed utterly in his aspiration to create a painting which expresses in its simple timeless contrast of form and facture some nameless, fundamental aspect of the human condition. In these latest works Wood asserts himself as an artist fully confident in his command of his created language of abstraction. Confident, bold and mature, at their best and in such a work as ‘The Climb', beyond mere words, they have the power to burn deeply and unforgettably into the psyche.

I am conscious that this essay has been peppered with the names of artists of the past and these should not be taken to suggest direct influences on Wood, but should rather be seen as the inevitable praise which any art historian bestows in his mind as he encounters references, observed, understood and assimilated. For while no art can entirely original, by the same token all art is unique and ultimately this work is Wood's alone. It could never be anything else, such is the raw, creative energy to which these paintings are a lasting testimony.

©Iain Gale, September 2006 [link]
Iain Gale is the Art Critic for the Scotland on Sunday newspaper.

 

New Ground
New Ground

Breathe
Breathe

Cold Moon Rising
Cold Moon Rising

Intrusion
Intrusion

Equivalence
Equivalence

Red Headland
Red Headland

I Can't Quite Remember
I Can't Quite Remember

The Climb
The Climb