Wilfrid Wood: Carving Out Psychological Depth

Isaac Perez Solano,

When I first started to do some research, before putting together the questionnaire for  Wilfrid Wood, all I could think of was about the perks of trusting your guts and talent enough to take the chance of crossover-ing from a regular professional to a full-time artist. I got rid of every reference that can possibly work to create this interview not his impressive resume. Wilfrid Wood’s legacy is a bittersweet symphony for those trying to understand what it’s like to be powerhouse by your own.

A version of this exclusive interview first appeared in the pages of the 12th issue of ODDA Magazine.

Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana

Wilfrid Wood’s sculptures of fashion designers Stefano Gabbana and Domenico Dolce photographed by Stephenson Luke.

Q: So, Central St. Martins, right? Why? What? How? When?

A: 1988-’91. I applied just because it sounded glamorous. Back then graphic design, which is what I studied, was based in Covent Garden. It was an eccentric tall narrow building but each student had desk space. There was also the Charing Cross Road site that was more fine art and Central, which did the craft. It’s all up in Kings X in one giant hanger now, which is no doubt much more efficient but like so much of London, less quirky and more corporate.

Q: Was it the kind of place you thought it would be?

A: The best thing about it was the other students. They opened my eyes more than any tutors. I came from an arty background so turned up thinking I knew it all. My years at CSM was a painful process of striping away a whole load of preconceived notions and starting again from scratch.

Q: Were you interested in people back then as much as you seem to be nowadays?

A: Yes, but oddly I couldn’t admit it to myself. I chose graphic design because I thought it was macho and abstract and cool. But really I’m much more of an emotional, fleshy, empathetic type. Something to do with my upbringing meant that human beings were, somehow too close and personal a subject. Occasionally my real self showed through however, as in one project where I sculpted a load of little swimmers with tight Speedos on.

Q: You have said that the subject is more interesting than the material can you explain this statement?

A: Some sculptors go nuts about stone or wood or wax or whatever they use. Of course the stuff you make things out of is important, I really like the texture of plasticine for example, but the crucial thing for me is to create a portrait that has some kind of psychological depth, some ambiguity, something that makes you wonder ‘who is this?’ If you don’t connect with the human beyond the surface in my work, I’ve failed.

 Wilfrid Wood

Images from Wilfrid Wood’s Instagram feed.

Q: So, you could say that your work, besides artistic and very poetic, is anthropological in a certain way, right?

A: The word anthropological has academic connotations, which is not my thing, though I’d like to have a go at recreating a Neanderthal under the auspices of a scientist. The way I sculpt people is almost entirely intuitive. It’s the often-paradoxical nature of how someone appears and who they actually are that gets me. George Orwell said, “At 50, everyone has the face he deserves.” I’m not sure that’s true. I always wonder whether you or I would have any inkling if a serial killer walked past us in the street. Do evil people have evil faces? In the same way it’s continually baffling to me that the most beautiful and fascinating looking people can turn out to be boring as hell.

Q: What’s your definition of idiosyncrasy?

A: You could say the old CSM in Covent Garden was idiosyncratic. It is something distinctive, perhaps not very practical but with a flavor of its own. Often the best art is idiosyncratic. It’s avoiding cliché.

Q: I find it curious that in your speech you make much reference to the term ‘middle age’. Could you define it as a stage or as a kind of movement that does not end to flourish because in one way or another we move forward in life?

A: Ha! Do I? How boring. I’m just banging on about the strange thing that happens to every human who reaches 40… you suddenly find yourself middle aged. It’s the filling in the sandwich between birth and death. It’s a time when you should know yourself and have enough experience to deal with situations better than you did when you were young, but also the end is in sight.

Silvia Fendi and Karl Largerfeld photographed by Stephenson Luke

Sculptures of Silvia Fendi and Karl Largerfeld photographed by Stephenson Luke.

Q: Do you get the chance to compare your work? I mean, the last one regarding the first thing you started doing?

A: Yes certainly, that is part of the famous ‘middle age’, looking back to see what you have achieved with quiet satisfaction or, more usually, numb regret. One of the disturbing things is to realize how much one’s work is influenced by fashions of the time. My stuff from 20 years ago looks dated. Hopefully it’ll look better again in another 20 years. Andy Warhol said ‘It’s much better to be classic than fashionable’ and I think that’s a good mantra. I hope the work I’m doing now won’t look so dated in 20 years. I’m trying to be more ‘classic’! It’s very hard to see the influence of the zeitgeist in the work you’re doing at the time.

Q: Is it something that artists are not undoubtedly able to escape from?

A: Every artist compares his old and new work. But it’s important not to get too hung up on it. In an interview with the great English artist Edward Burra he says that he’s only really interested in what he is painting that day. Whatever happens to old work and how it’s regarded is beyond his control. I like that attitude.

Q: And a light one just to refresh our conversation… Would you rather prefer Google Images or a bookstore while doing research?

A: Google images to be honest, I’m far too impatient for paper based research.

Q: What are your thoughts on Instagram? Will you consider this app as a useful tool?

A: I absolutely love Instagram. I’m constantly amazed by the ingenuity and invention on parade. Just when you think every photo has been taken, every joke made, someone on Instagram comes up with a startling image. I love the sexy boys who doll themselves up and take narcissistic selfies. My hero is someone called @beigetype who covers his face in snails and dresses up in plastic shopping bags. He constantly gets banned for encouraging self-harm.

Q: What’s your favorite movement?

A: I just saw Pasolini’s wonderful The Gospel according to St. Matthew, which is apparently ‘neorealist’ cinema, so right now that is my favorite movement.

Q: What are you going to do after you’re done with this interview?

A: I’m going to get cracking on some dense Italian biscuits I got for Christmas. I love rock hard biscotti.

the writer

Isaac Perez Solano

Related articles