This interview was originally printed in New Europe.
Richard Woods describes himself as “more social commentator than artist” and has been compared to the likes of Peter Howson. Woods is famed for his grotesque caricatures and macabre take on places, politics and people as he explores the “absurdity of human existence”. On the back of another critically acclaimed exhibition at the Garden Gallery in the UK, Steve Hynd met up with Woods to find out what drives the painter behind the canvas.
Can you tell us a bit about your background – where did you grow up and where did you study?
I was born in Harrogate, but moved with my family to Cheltenham when I was seven. My parents would often take me abroad, so from a young age I had already seen a lot of the world. As an only child I had a lot of time on my hands and spent most of my time drawing and watching cartoons, leading to an extremely active imagination.
Is there any one person that inspires you?
The artist Peter Howson has been the biggest inspiration on me. He’s the official war artist for Bosnia. I remember going to Art College aware of the fact I wanted to paint people but was unsure of how I wanted to do it. When a tutor showed me Howson’s work for the first time I was blown away. That’s when I knew the type of artwork I wanted to make -Distorted characters and stories which are rooted to real issues within society. All of a sudden I felt I had a real sense of purpose, that I was doing something greater than just painting a picture. Perhaps that sounds a bit egotistical, but I don’t really mind that to be honest.
Would you describe your art as political?
Yes certainly. When I first began creating social commentaries I was really focusing on the darkest aspects of the world. I was tackling the ugliest problems in society head on with huge dark boldly painted canvases.
But I was young and full of enthusiasm then, I somewhat reckless with my choices. I soon realised what I was painting could alienate some people more than inspire them – although all those early paintings are now in private collections. I wanted people to reflect on my art but also to enjoy my work visually. I wanted people to be inspired to also try and fix the problems I paint about
Are you an artist first, social commentator second, or vice-versa?
I think at one point I was more social commentator than artist, but over the past couple of years I would say I’m more of a visual artist.
Most of my imagery begins with the idea or the inspiration which can be a news headline or something as simple as a personal experience. That’s the foundations of a work before I indulge my imagination and build up a composition. As an artist my experiences and surroundings mould my perspectives on life. Artists create work in response to these whether consciously or not.
Is there a message or ethos behind your art? If so, is it important to you that people understand that message?
Yes I would like them to but at the same time I’m just like anyone else, I need to make a living and I want people to want to hang my pictures on their walls.
Visual art is essentially about creating something unique and aesthetic that visually people can enjoy. I am always trying new things out. At my recent solo show in Cheltenham I had quite a diverse exhibition to show people what I can do with a paintbrush. Quite often artists develop a comfort zone (including myself) which is actually quite anti-creative. To find true originality you need to experiment.
I have even been painting landscapes outdoors recently. I know, a bit of a cliché.
How have the UK’s coalition years affected your art?
The coalition creates a lot of interesting imagery. I did one painting of Cameron and Clegg titled “Cutting Corners,” which interestingly got a lot of attention in Scotland. It was sold along with some of Peter Howson’s paintings from The Braewell Galleries. I think people value a visual representation of the political issues that they cannot always articulate themselves.
Your art is often a grotesque reflection on life, does this reflect your personal take on life?
It’s definitely how I view the world. I always loved looking at the German expressionist paintings, like Otto Dix and Max Beckman. They were so grotesque and surreal yet held so much truth about the world in their content.
I really thrive on making work which has a cause or purpose. With my early work some people seemed a bit shocked by it but for me I didn’t see what was so shocking, it was just normality to me.
In complete contrast my more recent work which has seen huge ice cream cones filled with fluorescent ice cream has been really appealing to people, especially children. Yet they actually represent a number of dark topics including The Fukishima nuclear disaster and the idea of economic meltdown. This is a good dynamic, having people enjoy the visual imagery then afterwards can discuss the politics.
For more information on his art please visit http://www.art-spaces.com/richardwoods/