As I walked through Milton Keynes town centre on my way to this Richard Woods exhibition, I observed the usual procession of chain names in the shopping centre. The high rents in the precinct unsurprisingly attract only the best-known businesses, and if we were pessimistic, we could say that Milton Keynes, built from scratch in the 1970s, is the original model for all UK town centres, with its identikit barn-like bars and chains. Unwittingly, its Utopian town planners succeeded in paving the way for an unimaginably static environment. I arrived to find the entire gallery exterior covered in a painted MDF shell, emblazoned with a repeat pattern of brand names from a fictional dystopia, entitled Flora & Fauna (2008). Woods’ logos echo those in the shopping centre opposite and, combined with his distinctive handmade woodblocked aesthetic, imply that a critical relationship exists between public arts venues and funding. Illusory sponsors are shown alongside corporate partners. Stuck onto the gallery – instead of being hidden in the press material – these signs are up front and on the surface, the building foregrounding the influence of arts funding on contemporary exhibition-making. Wallpaper and decoration, arts, crafts, and highly visible graphic marketing saturate the space.
Entering the gallery, the entire floor is covered in Logo no. 51 (2008), another painted MDF covering. Imitation wooden boards of various sizes are painted in green and yellow to dizzying effect, suggesting a more workmanlike Jim Lambie. An image provided by the gallery shows Woods with his sleeves rolled up, handling a meteorite-like form. Everything seems to say, ‘We don’t do immodest glamour around here. We do craft and humour. Don’t get us wrong – we do extreme immodesty through large-scale installations – but it’s all ridiculously monumental and ironic, so we’ve got our feet on the ground.’ Which is a shame, because a bit of outrageous romanticism and glamour is exactly what this place really needs.
Approximate Rock no. 1 and Approximate Rock no. 2 (both 2008), boulder-like works on plinths. Each of the multiple planes of these two sculptures are printed with a separate tone of grey, and the overall effect is of a three-dimensional crazy paving, a kind of stylized generalization as aesthetic tactic. In the corner of the Long Gallery and the Middle Gallery another two works lean against the wall. Chopped Stock Sculpture no. 08–02 and Chopped Stock Sculpture no. 08–03 (both 2008) are homages to André Cadere’s Barres de bois rond (1970–8), but, unlike Cadere’s itinerant poles, these things haven’t been anywhere except the artist’s studio. Square and deliberately useless, they’re awkward commodities in the same way as everything else in this town.
A brick pattern on ceramic tiles in Red Brick Sculpture (2008) and a series of works entitled ‘Offcut Inlay Pictures (2007–8)’, unlikely though it sounds, echo the floor small slats of left-over wood are arranged into marquetry panels reminiscent of dynamic Vorticist-inspired imagery. A graphic push-pull takes place between the real and the fake on each image’s surface – all of the work in this exhibition has a synthetic ‘skin’. It’s an aesthetic that seems to further undermine the already discredited idea of the autonomous sanctity of the gallery. However, a ‘kynicism’ – a term Peter Sloterdijk has coined for an optimistic form of cynicism – is evident in the building’s exterior, so in effect, the whole gallery and everything in it becomes an antagonistic artwork in its own right when placed in opposition to the world outside, as if to remind us that any ‘autonomy’ the gallery building may have is thoroughly contingent on its location. The work’s consumerist plasticity makes one wonder whether there is any remaining vitality left in art historical models – for example Woods’ ‘Vorticist’ language might correspond to ideas raised recently about the ambiguous potential of the historical avant-garde by David Osbaldeston’s work – but for me this exhibition simply acts as a straightforward critique of the function of the gallery within its surroundings.
In the past Woods has created architectural interventions in environments including stately homes, public buildings and private apartments. If his work explores function and décor, from the red brick of his tiles to the pastiches of historical styles such as Tudor, 18th-century Baroque or the legacy of Modernism, then this exhibition in a public gallery primarily plays with its location, rather than art and the institution. The title Flora and Fauna is key; it alludes to an eco-naturalism slanted towards the irredeemable artificiality of the local environment, and if the artist is interested in the installation as ‘a beacon of hope’, and ‘in how the surroundings come to meet the work’, this takes place negatively as a stand-off between it and the car-centred commercial world outside, rather than as a harmonious reconciliation. Although this show lacks any immediate glamour or subtle allure, it has a different and more direct critical frisson that points out what is wrong in order to try and change it, and in this sense the exhibition is successful. Unless something more is done to promote this brand of hostile experimentation, our towns are doomed to exist as permanently petrified and frozen monuments in a severely restricted hinterland of total shopping and bad art. Let’s hope that galleries up and down the UK start to up the stakes and provide more creative and imaginative interventions such as this.