Misshapen plasticine faces and cartoonish bodies with wild expressions—Wilfrid Wood’s clay creations encourage a sense of familiarity before turning your perceptions on their head, eliciting a strange mix of discomfort and childish joy.
His style harks back to trademark British animators of the 80s and 90s as well as huge artists like Jeff Koons and David Shrigley, and the thoughts and feelings behind each work are bright and engaging—you can almost imagine him carving into clay, a sinister, cheeky grin plastered on his face.
Wood’s subjects range from young, queer instagram stars to Vladimir Putin to Pharrell. Through sculpture, his models become immortalised in the most absurd way. Yet despite his many influences, his voice could not be more distinctive.
The Creators Project: How do you feel about the amount of attention you've received even just in the last few years, not just in your home country but also overseas?
Wilfred Wood: Cock-a-hoop! I remember reading an interview with the writer Martin Amis where he was asked what he wanted from his work. He said “readers”. I would say “viewers”.
How did your upbringing and sense of self lead you to your specific form of sculpture?
I was brought up surrounded by artists, so I lazily slid into the family business. I was lucky having all this culture around, but it was of a very British traditional sort. It bunged me up with other people’s dogma and a “right” way of doing things. I envied fellow students who came from backgrounds where their parents didn’t understand what they were doing. Mine did all too well—and I was a rabbit in the headlights. My work now is largely the result of the tensions resulting from this strong set of inbuilt artistic values and the yearning to find my own voice.
So far as my personality goes, I’m fascinated by other people and long to connect, but often feel precarious in relationships. Part of my urge to do portraits is to fix people, to objectify and control them. You know the mass murderer Dennis Nilsen who killed people in order to keep their bodies as friends? It’s like that, but I don’t murder my victims—I make portraits of them.
Just from engaging initially with your work I noticed similarities to pop artists as well as more modern, conceptual artists. Even tell-tale elements of James and the Giant Peach, as well as Wallace and Grommit, which were a big fixture of understanding "Britishness" in my youth. Do you find comparisons reductive?
I’m always interested in what resonates with people, I think most artists are unless they’re absolutely sick of their fans like Bob Dylan. If you said my work was exactly like only one thing I’d be a bit depressed but I hope its a melange of influences.
Yes I love the fruity accessibility of pop art. I’m flattered that you see something conceptual in what I do because I feel like I’m incapable of it. There are ideas but not concepts in my work, if you see what I mean. Its tangible and emotionally guided, not intellectual. Ronald Dahl—I loved his books as a kid. Wallace and Grommit is exactly what I try NOT to do, it’s well done but I hate it.
Who would you say your influences are at the moment?
I love Alex Katz. I wish I could sculpt as he paints.
How do you choose subjects for your sculptures?
I choose people I can reveal something about. I wanted to show a cheeky side of the otherwise serious Angela Merkel. I felt a need to reveal the vicious heart of well-loved TV cook Mary Berry. I wanted to show the enigmatic beauty of Pharrell. There are a hundred different ways you could represent someone because a person has at least a hundred aspects. A sculpted portrait is a severely limited representation of a human being.
Is Instagram a useful tool for you?
I desperately love Instagram. It’s a constant parade of ingenuity and invention. I adore the sexy boys who doll themselves up and take narcissistic selfies. One of the best is a megalomaniac called @beigetype who covers his face in snails and claims to have had his nipples surgically removed.
You've worked with a bunch of big brands and organisations—do you feel like they limit your capabilities or do they allow you to push your ideas in new ways?
I haven’t worked with any big brands for a while now, not that I’ve been turning them away! I imagine this is because my work has got less cute and toy-like and more spiky. I’ve learned a lot working for corporations. Of course they pay well, but also a good client—for example Levis—gives me a super simple brief and leaves me to get on with it.
As a self-directed artist, it’s easy to repeat yourself and cover familiar territory. Commissions often force you to try things you wouldn’t have otherwise, which then feeds back into your own work. I’m not an outsider artist, I don’t work in a bubble.
You're quite open about the use of humour in your practice. How does wit allow us to confront more difficult or unreachable concepts in life?
“Open”? You make it sound like something shameful! Humour is all sorts of things. It’s a pressure valve when things are tough. It’s also a way of showing common understanding and feeling. When we laugh together we are like monkeys patting each other on the back. If someone is amused by my work I know I have succeeded, at least on some level. But I hope to elicit something more as well. A gallery visitor recently said he felt sympathy for the people I sculpt because they are so small and vulnerable on big plinths. I loved this observation. You stand in front of a work of art and see what emotional effect it has. I don’t see why visual art should be any different from music, it should penetrate your deep responses whether you like it or not.
I find that many contemporary artists are deathly scared of being earnest or open about the humanity behind their work, or using humour in a way that is accessible. Did you find it hard to represent those feelings in the modern art world?
Yes absolutely I am concerned with human beings and humour. I’m earnest about it! Any artist must go for what turns them on, there is no choice. I could never be a cool conceptual artist. I have a fine artist friend, a very lively and humorous woman, who does these abstract patterns of colourful dots and smudges that she talks about with such heat and passion, but I can’t see it at all. I simply don’t understand how she gets enough mileage from pattern making. I want anyone to be able to have an opinion about my work, you shouldn’t have to know anything about art to appreciate it. I despise elitist art made for other artists. The fine art world can be very insular and self-congratulatory.
Has your honesty earned you any detractors?
To have "detractors" would be rather glamorous, more likely I am ignored.
From what I can recall Nina Simone said that artists have a responsibility to make art "of the times" or reflect the modern world, and there are elements of your work that capture that really well, although in quite an obtuse way. Do you set out to do this, and if not, what drives you?
I’ve got a similar quote by French satirical artist Daumier up on my wall—"one must be of one’s time”. I would love my work to be properly contemporary, but actually it’s traditional in its form even if the subject matter is topical. The real cutting edge stuff is probably GIFS being made by teenagers in their bedrooms. But actually artists speak of their times whether they like it or not, even the ubiquitous retro prints that are everywhere are doing just that—we are buying into a cosy representation of a past that never existed because we are uncomfortable with the present and scared of the future.
I imagine Nina was actually talking about politics. I read recently that it’s a dereliction of duty for an artist not to be political.
How important is the concept of "beauty" in regards to your art?
Extremely important. It’s another area where I diverge from the contemporary art scene. Faces are beautiful so I try to make my work beautiful.