Richard Woods: Handmade Modern, review by Sacha Waldron
The first thing to notice as you enter Richard Woods’s Handmade Modern at Works:Projects is the floor of the exhibition space: plain, cold, grey concrete. Having seen only one Woods installation before - innovation-investment-progress at the 2008 Liverpool Biennial - I am expecting brightly coloured, black outline, potato-printed style floorboards that draw your gaze to your feet and hold you stuck, caught in a still wet, inked animation strip. Here, however, the floors are on the wall and provide both a contextual backdrop and an intrinsic part of a very different type of work.
The new sculptural series Hand Painted Table Leg Sculptures cut through the centre of the space on the diagonal; nine wooden table legs on circular plinths, painted with wobbly care in a multitude of spinning-top colours. These objects seem to be imbued with a totemic quality and reminded me of some Ancient Egyptian wooden Shabti figures I had seen at The British Museum earlier on in the week. Shabti figures, small and peg-like, were buried with the dead, supposedly called upon to perform manual tasks on behalf of the deceased. They often carried tools like hoes or picks, mascots of labour, powerful in their symbolism and practicality.
Woods’s table legs line up like these figures, armed, marching and stepping-stoned displaying all the marks of their craftsmanship yet looking, decoratively, like something knocked together in your grandfather’s workshop. They are both totems to worship and playful candy-flossed confections, sitting on their wonky barrels. Something you might find as theme-park props, both real and utterly unreal, slightly coming apart at the edges as you pass them on the log flume.
Flanking the objects are the large black-and-white prints, Mock Tudor Mono Prints. The patterns show different formations of line: a diagonal crossed with a straight line, a curved edge matched with a repeated square. I get the feeling I am looking at a decorative style guide, the black lines mimicking load-bearing timber beams of the Tudor period, but also a semiotic message. These paintings are flags of some sort, perhaps for the chair-leg army marching towards them.
When Woods is willfully obtuse and mixes up his symbolic meanings I think he is at his most effective; then his objects and painterly prints have the most power. I like the pop floorboards, the print of his black-and-white Swiss-kitsch decorated cabin or the twice-appearing image of the craftsman sawing wood at his bench. Individually, they do state the obvious. Woods’s work is about the workshop, the handmade, the human touch, loss of skill and device, decoration, traditions, embellishment, practical design, architecture and so on, but I prefer it ambiguous. I want to feel and connect all of the thematic nuances in the use of materials, colour and craftsmanship.
Handmade Modern is an experiment in display and Works:Projects becomes Woods’s own workshop, a place where he can match and re-shuffle different types of work. I feel like Woods is onto something here. In this instance, by moving away from his more site-specific commissions or stand-alone interventions, Woods is allowing a different type of conversation to occur. Here the objects and prints speak, re-interpret and re-invent each other, and this gives the viewer the opportunity to do the same.