Pembroke College JCR Art Collection presents...
DE PROFUNDIS | William Andris Wood
A Journey through Darkness in 20 Paintings
Pembroke College JCR Art Collection opens the exhibition year with an overview of William Andris Wood’s macabre and mysterious figurative painting. Featuring artwork that spans two decades of the artist’s commitment to reflecting on today’s world while drawing on the Romantic tradition, ‘DE PROFUNDIS’ is a highly personal account of Wood’s struggle to come to terms with being diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, the inadvertence of death, and the violent dynamics of contemporary society.
This exhibition contains adult content as well as images and themes related to death and sexual violence that some viewers might find distressing.
Viewer discretion is advised.
Disclaimer: All work is the Artist’s, and all opinions are his own.
Dark tones dominate Wood’s canvases, yet a visit to his studio in Headington will reveal that his palette holds every colour of the rainbow. There, just a few doors down from John Buckley’s infamous shark-finned ‘Untitled 1986’, Wood conjures bejewelled darkness. Despite having often been compared to Romantic painters like Delacroix and Géricault, both for his painterly style and socio-political subject matter, Wood is in every sense a contemporary artist. He may favour a visual language associated with the eighteenth and early nineteenth century (displaying his mastery of techniques such as underpainting and glazing, and evoking an atmosphere of heightened dread), but the subject matter is lamentably current: war, disease, violence, decay.
The present selection of works, which contains both new pieces and those previously exhibited, can be viewed as a kind of memento mori. Far from being an affectation, the constant reminders of death that pervade Wood’s world derive from the artist’s confrontation with his own mortality during his struggle with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD):
“Painting holds my hand as I stand at the precipice, staring down at the brink. About six or so years ago I was diagnosed with Alpha 1 Anti-Trypsin Deficiency, which is a progressive genetic disorder that causes lung and/or liver disease. I now (at 44) have stage 4 COPD, only 15% of my lung function, and am looking at a transplantation. My condition, combined with the stresses of the pandemic, being on furlough – unsure if I would have a job to return to – and shielding, all the while, has certainly put things into perspective!
However, I daresay it hasn’t treated me all too badly as it has given me the opportunity to lock myself up in the studio to paint, and I’ve never been more productive – with thirteen new canvases! If I’ve done my job as a visual artist well, the viewer may leave appreciating life a little more.”
Enshrined in the gothic tradition, William Andris Wood’s dark visions shine a light on the dark recesses of the human condition. A facemask, a shattered smartphone, a Corona beer bottle, a blue inhaler – we recognize our own world in these elements. Yet this is no photorealistic documentation, but rather a highly subjective vision filtered through the artist’s own psyche, where the operative emotion is fear. The monumental ‘Darkness’ is a post-pandemic dystopia inspired by Lord Byron’s poem of the same name. It could be read as a self-portrait, alongside several others in the exhibition. Some flattering (‘The Lord of Darkness’), others unflinching (‘COPD’), still others humorous (‘Shielding’) – they continue the tradition of artists subjecting themselves to their own critical gaze. ‘Gravity’, another monumental work that makes full use of a dramatic vertical composition, shows a world of inequality plunged into an abyss of uncertainty following the financial economic crisis of 2008. A reminder of the fragility of global systems as we face the prospect of another recession. ‘Rendition’, a harrowing portrait of a man’s emaciated body stark against the darkness of a prison cell, was brought to life in the wake of the allied invasion of Iraq.
‘#MeToo’ and ‘At Night (An Elegy on the Death of Sarah Everard)’ are challenging explorations of the subject of misogyny: where the former leaves nothing to the imagination and presents the awful handiwork of the killer to the viewer, the latter occults everything but the victim’s hand, severed at the wrist. Wood renders the tubular sheen of intestine and the crinkle of the building bag with the same critical hand. Far from celebrating death, suffering, or murder, the artist shows compassion for his subjects by rescuing images of their plight from the postmodern cocktail of news coverage, giving them an immortality (if only on canvas). The subject of ‘Acid’ survived the attack, and her disfigurement is depicted with the same care as the ivory cheek of ‘Dr Helen Davidge’, the artist’s partner.
‘Snow White’, which depicts the frozen body of an intoxicated, scantily-dressed young woman on the ground, may be more emblematic of the violence against the self, but hints at the misogynistic messages encoded in contemporary culture. Together with ‘The Big Issue’ and ’10:15 Saturday Night’ (both from the holdings of the Pembroke College JCR Art Fund), it forms a triptych that throws into relief the problems that are expressed in the plight of the most vulnerable members of society. The triptych is in dialogue with a body of work that the artist produced in the early 2010s – a series of paintings of homeless people from Oxford, a wealthy city which ‘boasts’ one of the largest homeless populations in Britain.
Flashes of sardonic humour reveal Wood’s underlying compassion for his subjects, of which he is the first target. ‘Shielding’, a variation on the theme of Medusa, admits Wood’s anxiety of contracting Covid-19 given his debilitating pulmonary condition with a nod to classical mythology. The two still lifes, ‘Gothick Still Life with Roses’ and ‘Lungs’, are self-portraits of sorts – one a visual metaphor of loves lost and found, the other a gruesome gift of a new pair of lungs by the artist to himself, tied with a festive black bow (painted from life, with the help of a local butcher). A wry smile comes upon the face from the realization that an artist so enamoured with human anatomy should struggle so much with his own body – and yet has the courage to be so frank about it in his work.
William Andris Wood may share Géricault’s fondness for severed heads, Delacroix’s self-portrait panache, or Fuseli’s love for gothic atmospherics, but he is very much his own artist. Crashing through the roof of the mainstream like the Headington shark, he is no less of an Oxford icon, instantly recognizable in his Regency couture (not a costume, he insists). Having recently come into the possession of a palette “possibly” owned by Eugène Delacroix, he compares the feeling to “owning a Stradivarius or one of Hendrix’s guitars”. A sentiment befitting a rockstar in the world of art.
DE PROFUNDIS is on view at the Pembroke College JCR Art Fund gallery in 5 Brewer Street, Oxford OX1 1QN during the weekends of 5-6th Nov, 12-13th Nov, 19-20th Nov (12.00-15.00), or by appointment.
Private Viewing and Drinks on Friday 4th November - RSVP required.
Artist's Talk and Q&A on Wednesday 9th November - RSVP required.
About The Artist
William Andris Wood was born in 1977 in Denver, Colorado. His grandfather, Arapahoe County Coroner for 12 years in the state of Colorado, could be cited as an early influence: his books, slides, and photos ignited the young artist’s imagination and piqued his interest in human anatomy. In 1998 Wood graduated from Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design, Denver, Colorado, and undertook an apprenticeship with renowned colourist Jim Valone, a student of Hans Hoffmann, the following year. Wood moved to Oxford, England in time for the new millennium to be closer to world-renowned museums, the dynamic art scene, and the Romantic painters and poets, whom he considers his peers. Wood has exhibited in the UK and the US, with notable solo and group shows in London, Oxford, Bath, and Denver, where his work has been shown alongside Pablo Picasso and HR Giger. The artist’s ethos is expressed in his social media blurb: “Putting ‘pain’ into painting since 1995.”
The Pembroke College JCR Art Fund holds two of his pieces.
For more information about William Andris Wood please visit www.williamandriswood.wordpress.com
About The Curator
Myroslava Hartmond is a British Ukrainian curator and creative consultant who is known for her work with dark and difficult subject-matter. She has curated exhibitions on topics as diverse as Lenin’s cult of personality, Norwegian black metal, and traces of Ukraine’s Jewish heritage, and brought the first HR Giger retrospective to Ukraine in 2019. After graduating from St Antony’s College, Oxford University in 2014, she ran the Triptych art gallery in Kyiv, Ukraine, before returning to Oxford in March 2022.