Michael Edwards essay on the Art of War

Looking across earlier works and documentation from Steve Woodbury’s artistic oeuvre, linear forms often come to dominate the surface of his paintings and paper-based works. The apprehension of the gestures that form these various lines – regardless of their abstract, calligraphic or textual provenance – frequently disclose an absent but embodied source, the artist himself. Woodbury is not a small man, and neither are his artworks.  Likewise, a consistently palpable – though not visible – vertical axis suggests that he is in the habit of standing as he works. This signature ‘presence’ is, however, usually mediated through an indulged fascination with certain philosophical, poetic and technological histories from Asian cultures along with their tangential and closely personal intersections with contemporary life.

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The Art of War

Let us take some of the ideals of the Samurai as a foundation for the works in The Art of War exhibition: the educated warrior completed by the cultured practice of weaponry, ink drawing and poetry. Here, the mastery of both swordplay and calligraphic characters rely on a foundation built upon the repetition of overtly linear gestures, and through exacting discipline it may become possible to attain connection with the Zen Buddhist notion of ‘spiritual’. It was this revelation of the spiritual essence of the individual maker in the act (intuitive swordsmanship) or form (calligraphy) that was assigned a higher value than was the mere ‘doing’ or ‘meaning’ it involved.  The cultivation of poetry, as with the military arts, was also based on similar ideals: self-discipline, honour, self-cultivation, spirituality and humility; and wherein incidents from everyday life enabled a widening of consciousness beyond an illusion of the self.  Woodbury has conflated poetry and other textual forms into his abstract works over many years, and for this body of work text from The Art of War was selected to both bind and instantiate contemporary and ancient ideas and practices. (This seminal textbook – attributed to the Chinese General, Sun Tzu – is referenced in military academies today, as it has been for millennia.)

Overlaying this foundation is a conceptual frame adopted by Woodbury, the QWERTY keyboard. QWERTY has world-wide ubiquity with its various yet similar configurations. Once the province of secretaries, journalists and few others with mechanical typewriters, since the advance of digital technologies from the 1990s it has infiltrated daily human existence. Whether thumbing text messages or formally ‘touch typing’, the vast traffic of digital communication is in part matched by the blur of fingers and thumbs across the globe. Every keystroke is both a linear motion and is bound to the transfer of data, text and to the mind of the writer. For the artist, this meeting of act and thought is key to the making and reading of these works – through tracing the outline of fingertip movement across a keyboard when typing Sun Tzu’s ancient text, now.

By replacing paints, inks and other traditional art mediums with gunpowder, Woodbury has introduced a new material presence into his artistic practise. Intense chemical reactions, fire discharge and residues fuse his powder drawings to the paper with materially rich affect. Blasted, scorched and smoked, his linear forms are seared into – and sometimes through – the cotton-based substrate while smoke and other chemical residues leach seamlessly into the surface of the paper. Gunpowder comprises essentially three key elements: nitrate, charcoal and sulphur; however the composition of formulas and variation within the elementals offer a vast palette of powders, combustion rates and chemical reactions. The works in The Art of War operate within a contained palette. They are weighted in a spectrum across cadmium yellow to charcoal/graphite, with some smoky-white flares and fugitive iridescent blues and the occasional random chemical aberration.

In arriving at this series of works, it is in the artist’s experimentation with a range of powders and other less predictable substrates where an exciting potential for the unusual medium is realised. The Art of War was developed alongside a series of powder-burn works on polystyrene – ancient chemistry unleashed onto a modern substance; one that is simultaneously rigid and unstable. Polystyrene’s petrochemical constituency and a low melting point makes it highly susceptible to the temperatures present in a powder blast. The resultant works are ‘formed’ by what is no longer present, the exact shape of the hot blast is gone, leaving only remnant polystyrene.  Like an intaglio or relief printing plate, sculptural and planar elements play against each other while the coarse whiteness of the material ensures the activation of light upon its shaped surface. An omnipresent and derided material in service as packaging for our consumer needs, polystyrene’s disposable valuelessness and strange textures offer a familiar, yet heightened material presence.  Resolutely industrial (it is famously slow to biodegrade), polystyrene is neither part of nor conducive to the natural world, and its poetics are clearly delimited to that of ‘man-made’.

The works on paper, on the other hand, are loaded with poetic distraction. The violence of the powder explosion is easy to see beyond, as the artist’s control often gives way to an atavistic fascination with fire, of staring into campfire coals. Across the Gunpowder Text Scape series, 2013, and against the level line of the main powder blasts, carbon black remnants spike upwards and forwards beneath a smoky, grey haze. Billowing up and around in a windborne formation is a cadmium yellow stain that starts our narrative drive and – suddenly – a raging bushfire is upon the horizon. Paper burns, plus we know all the very present signs of matter, material truth, and that of nature’s forces.  Likewise, in The Art of War – Reading the past, 2013, we quickly look past the distractions of possible text, a large central vertical ‘pole’ and its Rorschach inkblot structure to gaze upon believably topographical formations in the background layers: mountains, dispersing forests, craters, and possibly lakes. The image is credibly natural (as opposed to digital), a familiar, though monochrome, Google Earth.

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Steve Woodbury’s artistic journey sees a lifetime of drawing experience, a strong fascination with eastern culture and for the expressive possibility of line, informed by his good knowledge of key works by artists working with eastern influence. This combined with a depth of painting practice and a curiosity to find new forms of material expression has generated the body of The Art of War works.  He has put aside his brush and sword for the creative impact of detonators and fuses, and in doing so has unearthed a rich vein of material and artistic potential.

Michael Edwards