EXHIBITION REVIEW: Betty Woodman

By: Ellen O'Donoghue Oddy | Date 17.03.2016
The prolific American artist brings her sculptures of the strange and familiar to London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, in her first solo UK exhibition.
Photo: ICA
The Betty Woodman exhibition at the ICA is a playground of sorts. As you enter the first room of the ICA, which sits on a lower platform to the rest of the exhibition, you are met with a sea of crockery, disseminated across a grey floor. Step down and find yourself immersed in a community of painted vases, hung canvas and nailed fragments of crockery. ‘Theatre of the Domestic’ meets the domestic space and the gallery space as one would expect from a collaboration between London’s ICA and America’s Betty Woodman; unexpectedly.

Betty Woodman has been sculpting and painting since the mid 20th century, yet it is only now that she has her first UK solo exhibition. Growing up in Connecticut, and attending Alfred University in New York, Woodman has established herself as a significant artist in America. Rotating around her most famous subject, the vase, her oeuvre sees a consistent desire to restore the everyday domestic object into its strange, unfamiliar, distinctive, personal, original form. Pieces of the home headline each of her exhibitions, and it is specifically her power to call to question our assumptions of ordinary surroundings (alongside our assumptions of gallery spaces) that the ICA has now brought to light.

It was after her retrospective in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2006, an honour to any living artist, Woodman felt catalysed to produce new work. She states, in an interview by the ICA to coincide with the exhibition, “I sort of wandered what am I supposed to do, crawl in a corner and go away. I need to start working again after something like that.” Her vigour to return to the contemporary is evident throughout the exhibition, where Woodman coordinates her pieces around the physical presences of each new viewer.

Woodman’s work centres itself around the vase; how this specific object of the home embodies the living subject of the human. Woodman’s hand sculpts and positions the vase into a variety of forms; it is crinkled down, leaping out, poised atop a table, shattered across a floor. Some vases are explicitly of the body, such as Kimono Ladies (2015) where vases are dressed and shaped into silhouettes, faces of little detail posing in line. Here we see something specifically contemporary in Woodman’s artifice, breaking from the neo-avant-gardism of her mid-century contemporaries; her abstraction is not a leap away from convention, but rather a journey into it. Instead of making the common thing (the human) into the strange (the misshapen vase), she makes the strange into the common image. This isn’t Warhol’s everyday soup cans repeated into the vibrancy of meaningless artefact, but the discovery of a tea cup in abstract sculpture.

The exhibition continues to find convention within the abstract. Many vases take forms that spill between various objects of the home. Some vases resemble teacups, others look like tables, and as fragments of earthenware are sprinkled into a pattern that becomes a carpet floor, we see the broken object becomes absorbed by the material of the home. Her works similarly strike up a conversation between the 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional, where flat painted canvases establish the room space, from which the sculpted object appears. The exhibition is split between Woodman’s painted works and sculptures; however this distinction seems to adhere only to the ICA’s geography of rooms, as we find plenty of sculpture and canvas in both.

Her shapes, in their various dimensional forms, are imperfect, childlike almost. There is a sense of the unfinished, or the artist mid-process in the works; they are stuck between 2D and 3D, pencil outlines of earthenware shapes are left to view on the canvas, and the nail which holds fragments porcelain to the wall is not simply exposed, but driven through the centre of the sculpture. Whilst breaking the finality of artistic production, Woodman turns the viewer’s eye to the most vivid aspect of her work; her rhythmic use of colour. Her bright pastel shades against the murkier greens and browns are in constant dialogue; looking at County Dining Room (2015), I was reminded of my own dining space, that seems to be in constant flux between the lively and the still, the clean and the dirty. The circularity of her colour, to the sense of her work in process, and the domestic object gesturing with liveliness create a sense of the living domestic space and the living artist that refuses to “crawl in a corner and go away”.

Perhaps the most striking of all pieces is Woodman’s The Summer House (2015). It takes the form of four wall size canvases which depict a 2-dimensional room space with bright pastel colours and patterns adorning walls and windows. A wooden shelf is mounted onto the second canvas, upon which sit two earthenware vases, and in front of the fourth canvas sit two unpainted clay vases. Against the colours of the canvas are shapes painted just in white, which fit the outline shape of these vases. The effect of this is that the vase has been removed from the painting and into the physical realm of the viewer. Woodman enables the object to be removed from the artifice, and come into our reality. Yet in this transgression of artistic boundaries, we are simultaneously made freshly aware of the now empty space on the canvas, like a dead body outline. Such darker undertones can be discovered throughout the exhibition. Look behind the Kimono Ladies’ flat silhouettes and you see they are fixed onto earthenware tubes, or poles. Their lively poise becomes a form of tying up, hidden from the viewer’s first glance. Whilst exploring the liveliness of the domestic object, Woodman forms a dichotomy between the artwork within the fixed gallery space, and our own constructions of domestic selfhoods.

This transgression between the space of the viewer and the space of the artist, and these two corresponding realities, are what makes Woodman contemporary. Her use of the domestic here becomes an enquiry into how we understand the personal domestic room alongside the public gallery room, and the beauty (or danger) that occurs when they overlap. Throughout this exhibition fragments embody completeness, or the strange becomes conventional. Woodman explores how the home can absorb discord and disintegration into the sense of its whole, and how this speaks to an art exhibition like this, where distinct pieces of an artist are framed into a familiar arc, a rich narrative.


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