Among the many things that are annoying about the Royal Academy’s current survey of British sculpture in the 20th century, the most annoying, perhaps, is the missing-out of the Anish Kapoor generation. Even Kapoor himself has been avoided. So has that important British sculptor Richard Deacon. Alison Wilding isn’t there. Shirazeh Houshiary isn’t there. It’s like putting on an impressionist exhibition without Monet, Renoir or Pissarro. Silly.
One decision the curators did get right in this respect is the inclusion of Bill Woodrow, the master of expressionist sheet-metal origami, who at least makes a tiny appearance in the RA’s fiasco, although you’ll need a magnifying glass to locate it. In truth, the 1980s were a period of towering achievement in British sculpture. Not to acknowledge that is stupid. And Woodrow — so witty, so snappy, so unknowably deep — was among the biggest achievers of that generation.
Good news, then, that the Waddington Galleries, on Cork Street, which has spent the entire 21st century so far impersonating a railway sleeper, has suddenly lurched awake with an exciting survey of his early work. Set firmly in the 1980s, the show looks back at a defining period when Woodrow took a can-opener to the stuff he found in the skips of Thatcher’s Britain and refashioned it into a marvellous sequence of witty new objects. King Midas succeeded only in turning everything into gold. King Bill turned our rubbish into sculpture.
A dozen of these witty transformations have been Tardised back into the present, and, since nostalgia has no place on the palette of the working art critic, I went along to the show principally to see if a modern viewing allows us to understand his work differently. Was Woodrow doing something back then that we missed? Indeed, what was he doing back then, when he turned an unwanted spin-dryer into a violin, or carved up the bonnet of a Renault 4 and rebent it into the Ship of Fools? Nostalgia may have no place on the palette of the working art critic, but understanding something better the second time is not nostalgia.
So much for good intentions. No sooner had I stepped through the gallery door than back it all flooded, like a direct hit from a water cannon: Thatcher’s Britain in all its violent gloominess — Transit vans stuffed with IRA explosives and skips full of unwanted mattresses, Brixton as a no-go area, riots in the street, fires in car parks and a London whose damp pavements had become a dumping ground for everyone else’s unwanted consumer undurables. Broken Amstrads in cardboard boxes and someone’s old settee in your garden in the morning. I didn’t want it to happen, but it did: Woodrow’s show dumped me straight back in the muck of its times.
Bean Can with Spectacles, from 1981, has about it the air of a self-portrait. A tin can has been carefully cut into and the liberated metal bits have been twisted and bent into an amusing approximation of Bill Woodrow’s glasses. The remains of the tin can still look like a tin can; the new glasses look like new glasses. So there is a bargain-basement air to the transformation — two for the price of one — which feels right for the times as well, while the umbilical cord of tin that continues to join one object to the other introduces a note of unbreakable siamese connection. Rubbish and vision, tin can and glasses, might, in theory, represent polar opposites, but, in this sculpture at least, they have been yoked together for ever.
This thoughtful and pessimistic resonance raises Woodrow’s sculpture to the first rank. While others around him contented themselves with witty transformations alone — all such hey-presto art is, of course, descended from Picasso’s inspired decision to turn a pair of bicycle handlebars into a bull’s head — Woodrow is also determined to evoke his world and comment on it.
This show’s masterpiece, Car Door, Armchair and Incident, again from 1981, is cleverly made, but also profoundly atmospheric. Out of an old armchair and a battered car door, Woodrow has fashioned a scene from The Sweeney. The door has become a double-barrelled shotgun, while the stuffing from the old armchair is now splattered on the wall behind in an effective stand-in for a gun blast. Nothing is stated. Everything is implied. But how tangibly we are dumped into roadside violence by this IRA ambush of a sculpture. And it isn’t only Britain in the 1980s being evoked here. Tattoo, from 1983, features the yellow door of a New York chequered cab being chewed up by a black panther made out of unwanted Manhattan clothing. Ah, yes, the Lower East Side. Now that really was a scary place.
This punchy show reminds us instantly of how important a sculptor Woodrow was at the time. The only thing wrong here is that this is the Waddington Galleries. It ought to be the Royal Academy. Or even Tate Modern.