Christopher P Wood calls his work an exploration of the interior world of the imagination. With a major new exhibition at Halifax’s renowned Dean Clough gallery to his name, we sat down with the artist to talk about his recent work.
Perhaps you could start by telling us, on a basic level, what your art is about?
One of the things that is of most interest to me, and which I’ve felt since I was a small child, is the idea of the imagination as being a key way in which to understand the world.
Up to about 2011 my work had really explored the imaginative traditions of the Western world, stretching from Shakespeare and folk tales back to Plato and Greek mythology. It was an investigation that led me back to the origin of the Western mind, and a lot of the paintings I made were a kind of narrative on mystery and the imagination.
For the last five years I’ve been working in a very symbolic, figurative way, and incorporating elements from renaissance painting, Indian painting, and all those great, expressive modernist painters that I admire, so it’s a real melting pot of ideas.
One of the first things I did once I’d finished my postgraduate degree in London was to look around and try and find out what other poets, composers, what choreographers and dramatists were making work about. I found that art was beginning to reference art a little more than it was just dealing with ideas. I also felt it was impossible to make meaningful art unless you believed in the reality behind this reality, and that belief in the other world, an ‘other side’ or the ‘unseen’, is something that has endlessly fascinated me and remains the stimulus for all my reading and creativity.
Is there a particular story you want to tell through the images you create?
I’m never really trying to dictate to people what they should see in a painting of mine; they should sort of find their own way into it, and in that way I hope that I make very open images, where there’s a doorway which people can enter and find their own way through.
Most of my paintings, particularly sequences of canvases, have a kind of narrative, but it’s not linear in the sense that it’s not a story that you start where there’s a beginning or an end; it’s a series of images in which the viewer can plot their own chart and their own journey, so that people can come to my work and find their own place in it.
I take a lot of my ideas from literary sources. Recently I’ve been interested in Dante and have been meditating on his Divine Comedy, which has inspired a way of working that is to do with allegory. It’s a way of dealing with complex ideas using symbols that are sort of understood and mean certain things, and in some respects it’s a way of not saying things absolutely explicitly, but allowing imagination or intuition to devour the meaning.
In the past you’ve worked in a huge range of techniques and processes. What projects are you currently tackling?
At the moment I’m working on several different things at the same time, so when I arrive in the studio in the morning the first thing I tend to do is just reacquaint myself with all the images that surround me.
I’ve been producing a series of oils which show a range of different painting techniques in the same canvas, from highly controlled and highly measured bits of painting to gestural, very expressive elements, often drawn straight from the tube. It’s a case of bringing all these things that I love about the medium together: the fluidity of the paint, the oiliness of the paint, combined with that precise control that you can get.
Over the last few years I’ve also made large series of monoprints at the Goldmark Atelier. Monoprinting gives you a unique, one-off print, and offers a very intuitive way of making images; normally, in printmaking terms, one always thinks of multiples and editions, so it’s a very direct way of working. It’s exciting because the process is very, very quick. It’s a way of liberating images from the imagination, much like working very quickly in a sketchbook.
It’s extremely chaotic: there are brushes and rags everywhere, and we work very spontaneously. Even as the plate itself goes down on the press I start getting ideas and scribble away little bits, so even a second or two before the blankets go down you have the opportunity to alter your image. And you just never know what’s going to happen. That immediacy is the great joy of printmaking for me, to be able to never lose a sense of excitement or anticipation of what’s going to appear when the paper is lifted off the plate.
These past few years have been a particularly vibrant period for you; how have they shaped up into the body of work in this latest exhibition?
This show has been a long time in the planning: we’ve been in discussions with Dean Clough and the beautiful Crossley Gallery here for a couple of years now. But the marvelous thing about these big public shows is that they give you the opportunity to display a whole range of work which you perhaps, in normal circumstances, can’t show when you’re in your normal exhibiting pattern of maybe 20 or 30 pieces.
A few years ago I produced a series of paintings that were about self-transformation, paintings called ‘Birdman’, ‘The Man who Became a Bear’. At the time I felt there was a creative and personal transformation going on in my own life. The habits of painting had become a kind of straightjacket, so I decided to stop, which, having painted solidly for 25 years, was a momentous decision. I spent 18 months making collages, using largely things of my own, Mike Goldmark giving me tailpieces of Picasso engravings and John Piper prints which I subsequently ripped up and used as material, inventing them anew.
With collage, you start off with something that is unknown and scattered, and slowly through the manipulation of composition and looking for those synchronicities you stumble upon something that has a meaning which is deeply resonant, that triggers something at a much deeper level because it’s poetic and mysterious. And in order to achieve that, I have to trust my instinct, I have to put things down in a collage or a painting that are completely mysterious to me, which I can’t predict, and then start trying to make those unpredictable things coherent. Out of that, you get something that is totally unique.
I made a lot of collages and then decided to take that experience into painting, with images that had a very mythical, dreamy, fairy, folk-like kind of form. The result was the experimental, symbolistic paintings of the last 12 months. So that’s really the story behind the last 5 years and this exhibition of work: this abrupt change to collage, and all the wonderful things that have happened because of that process.
What would you like viewers to take away from this show?
I guess I have a very particular way of looking at the world, a very imaginative way, which intensifies my enjoyment and my experience of that world. It’s that that I want to communicate in all the pieces that I make, a great sort of joy, a great optimism, and a great sense of things that lie just beyond our reality, things which are extraordinary. If I can bring some of that into other people’s lives, then I would consider myself a very lucky and fulfilled artist.