Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Monumental presence: Clare Woods, “The Unquiet Head,” at the Hepworth, Wakefield

The Balance (detail)

Clare Woods has been busy this year. Even if the 14 paintings in her current Hepworth exhibition, “The Unquiet Head”, represent her entire 2011 output, then it’s a major achievement. Apart from anything else, five of them are enormous.  The title, a play on the way the massive eroded heads of her subject, Brimham Rocks in North Yorkshire, seem to exert  a mythic influence on the questing human mind, recurs and echoes throughout, underlined by punning titles for the individual pictures. The mass and mystery with which she deals are clearly incarnated in her unusual choice of media, oil and enamel on aluminium panels.

 Brimham Rocks

                Being at the Hepworth, the exhibition aims to bring out the sculptural angle in Woods’s work.  Making imaginative use of small pieces by Paul Nash, John Piper, Graham Sutherland and Barbara Hepworth herself, the gallery  provides an introductory group of precedents and inspirations in a vestibule to the first room – an instructive and helpful device. Thus Piper’s “Cascade Through Tunnel, Hafod” finds its echo in Woods’s “Hollow Face”; Sutherland’s semi-abstract “Devastation 1941, City: Fallen Lift Shaft” is further abstracted in “Funnelled Hole.”  Hepworth’s “Rock Face” is self-explanatory as a preface to the mythico-geological preoccupations of the five giant Woods works to come in the second and third rooms.

 Funnelled Hole

The smaller paintings in the first room serve as a low-key introduction to some of Woods’s techniques. Two trios, “The Balance” and “Idle Idols I-III,” portray human heads as dense masks, two-dimensional but for the solidifying contrasts of bright – in some cases fluorescent – foreground colour against sombre, blended backgrounds. The former  is a triptych demonstrating, literally, an ‘unquiet head’, moods playing across it from panel to panel. The second is more in the nature of three variations on an uneasily jokey theme. The ‘unnatural’ palette, combined with rough lines, flamboyant detail, and the flat, shiny way in which the oil pigment lies on metal,  denature the ostensible figurative content of their subject.

 The Bloody Kernel

Two rooms lead off either side of the first. In one, three wall-height studies of aspects of the Brimham Rocks are each built up from an interlocking series of painted panels. “The Bloody Kernel” is a monumental presence hinting at a double-faced Janus-head rising away from the viewer. Horizontal strokes of colour against its black body  create a complex show of abstract detail out of the implied striations of eroded rock.  Slight disjunctures between the painting of constituent panels produce a collage effect, in turn hinting at a Cubist shift in perspective and angle of vision.  “Hopes, Noes” splits another monolith with a volcanic eruption of vivid broad brushwork, rendering the main form uneasy on its dark plinth, the controlled use of tones balancing the conventional solidity of rock against  the dynamism of the acts of seeing and painting. “Tragic Head” is a group of forms suggestive once more of human heads, one brooding presence dominant, the whole assembled from the most disjointed collage of not-quite-lined-up panels in this group, unity achieved by a tension between the movement of each and the complex detail around the base.

Hopes, Noes

Mistaken Point (detail)

The exhibition’s centrepiece is probably the two 10.5m-long panoramas, each assembled from six square panels. “Mistaken Point” and “The Intended” are companion-pieces giving sweeping views of the subject rock-formation – the former closer in, the latter more detached,  the wordplay in their titles implying different ways of understanding based on proximity and position. The pieces’ respective dominant colours are both contrasting and complementary. “The Intended” reprises and expands the monolithic head-motif in some of the pieces already discussed, while “Mistaken Point” reproduces, poignantly, what appears to be an isolated, possibly misspelt graffito inscribed in the rock and almost certainly having outlived its author: ‘ADREW 1923.’ It is perhaps this kind of telling detail which, accentuating and highlighting the huge, vague, major forms, gives the work in this show its vividness, humanity and power.

The Intended

“The Unquiet Head” is at the Hepworth, Gallery Walk, Wakefield until 29th January 2012.

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