BILL GREGORY

‘Steve Woodbury : Photographs of God’ catalogue essay

Some artists are able to condense into single pieces where their quarry lies in terms of painting. As I write this I have a diptych from the Omnipotent Shadow series and a smaller work at first glance very different from the Theory of Everything series. What is clear from these two works in front of me and from the reproductions for this book is that Woodbury is on a journey to which we are all invited if we are willing to take the time to contemplate through intensive looking. These works, like most good paintings have their secrets and are shrouded in mystery. It is not an intellectual exercise or an attempt to fit in to some aspect of what is currently fashionable. It is rather the patient building of a ‘container’ by which I mean a world created by Woodbury that we may enter where the rules are made by the artist. He is not attempting to copy nature in these works but he looks to nature’s example to guide him. He is not trying to recreate emotion or reproduce feeling – he creates and armature which actually produces emotion and feeling for the viewer depending on their own internal mechanisms.

The question of influence is always and interesting, if tricky one to speculate with artists. What is admired in the art historical canon and what does Woodbury use from the influences he has been exposed to which directly affect his work? Indeed, many influences he would be necessarily unaware of as they may come from unconscious interactions with other art or they may derive from only partially retained personal experience.

My own impressions bring certain associations to mind. There is depth in the paintings created through line and drawing in even the most abstract works. The painting ‘Omnipotent Shadow’ has a remarkable freedom in the application of the paint but sits in a definite structure creating space and allowing the eye to move on and off the surface. In this he reminds me of some of the school of Paris painters in the 1950’s like Mathieu, Hans Hartung and Pierre Soulages. The built up surfaces and textures in other works bring to mind the Spaniard Antoni Tapies or late Jules Olitski and the more minimal works have an air of Cy Twombly. Add to this, due to the ubiquitous exhibition of contemporary Aboriginal art to which all painters in this country are exposed, and the fact Woodbury appears to have grasped the effects and uses of Chinese calligraphy, and you have an eclectic mix of possible influences. Clearly he has an intimacy with art history which is critical in my view, as without a knowledge of what has come before it is impossible to be fully present.

When brought into the container of his oeuvre what do all of these influences means? For me they are a way of accessing the work. The use in his painting of Western art history, Aboriginal and Asian art is a big peak to scale and it is extraordinary to be able to relate as a viewer in this way. For Woodbury however, such specificity as I have mentioned above is more stimulating as a viewer interaction that it is to his own goals in painting. The work is ultimately about his own emotions and his desire to express them in a way in which we may identify. While different series of work have their own particular moods there is an underlying theme which binds them surely together. For a young artist they display a remarkable confidence even a tenacity to reach inside and externalize the internal world through his art. They may be sometimes brash and exuberant but retain the necessary discipline for resolution. There are highly detonated, almost heroic passages of paint combined with the skills and experience to temper his exuberance with subtle shadings and depths. I find the work celebratory in nature – it is almost that Woodbury cannot quite believe himself the good fortune that his quest for substance and spiritual resonance can bring him. He is eager to share this with us and we may all look forward with anticipation to experiencing his vision as it continues to unfold.

Bill Gregory
Sydney

August 2004