La Jolla/ Berkeley

Bill Woodrow

La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art; University Art Museum, Berkeley

British artist Bill Woodrow is well-known for making sculpture from things found near where he plans to exhibit it. Last summer, the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art invited Woodrow to spend some time in the San Diego area and make the work that would comprise his first museum show in the United States. (Even the show’s antic title, “Natural Produce: An Armed Response,” was patched together from vernacular speech that caught his ear.) Woodrow was particularly struck by Southern California’s bizarre commingling of paradisiacal climate, sybaritic living, and security consciousness, as he suggested in a resourceful wall-mounted piece called Trivial Pursuits, 1985. For this work he peeled away the steel skin of a Porsche door and refashioned it into pinwheel-foliated boughs from which hang an automatic pistol, a jewel box, and a padlock that a blue hummingbird picks as if it were a blossom.

This traveling show was the first chance I’d had to see the same examples of Woodrow’s work in two disparate installations. Denizens of Northern and Southern California pride themselves on differences that are sometimes indiscernible or inconsequential to out-of-state visitors, so I was curious to see if the work Woodrow made in the environs of San Diego would look misplaced in Berkeley. The work in fact did wear a different aspect in the Berkeley setting, but it did not look misplaced. Woodrow’s sculpture is not site-specific; “ambience-specific” might be a better term for it. And the ambience he drew upon, as he must have realized, was really the American maelstrom of commercial oversupply and obsolescence, which is all-pervasive. The few references to the San Diego area, such as the naval-artillery shell he caused to flower in San Diego Rose, 1985, are very tenuous links to the locale.

At Berkeley, all of Woodrow’s pieces were installed in a single long channel of gallery space, which made them read as an ensemble. The most ambitious work of the lot, Still Waters, 1985, is a flotilla of object-laden box springs that seemed to draw much of the rest of the show along in its wake. In La Jolla, Still Waters was also the centerpiece of the show, but it shared a huge room with one small piece on a pedestal (Eclipse, 1985) and Trivial Pursuits, neither of which seemed to fall within its sphere of influence.

The box springs, juxtaposed to the thrift-shop sport jackets and steamer trunks heaped up in Collection, 1985, made reference to the nomadic life of the business traveler, of which there are so many more reminders in San Diego than in Berkeley. And even though San Francisco Bay is right nearby, the nautical reference in Still Waters seemed more remote in Berkeley than it had in La Jolla, where the Pacific is literally just out the museum window. However, Woodrow’s sculptural methods, his makeshift techniques for recycling given objects into representations of other objects, are so versatile that they seem truly international, applicable wherever things are thrown away. To see how well his work travels confirmed my idea that it owes its satirical and optimistic power as art to the sustained impact of the imagination on the waves of detritus that break up on our lives.

Kenneth Baker