Issy Wood
Issy Wood's Denuded Realism

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Issy Wood's Denuded Realism

When I close my eyes and think of Issy Wood’s paintings, it feels like having a bad trip. Smirking crockery swims out of the darkness; leather, porcelain and satin glint; hands grip door knobs that cannot open; teeth are bared; a cow’s udder bulges, veins rippling across its surface. Wood’s work has the habit of making viewers into voyeurs – there is something vaguely perverse about her gloomy yet gleaming snapshots of objectified flesh and strangely sentient objects. Her still lives, in other words, are anything but still. Her paintings teem and glimmer and wink and threaten.

"these paintings are like Xanax"

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Detail View: Issy Wood, Self portrait 52, 2023, Oil on linen, 215 x 175 x 5 cm. Image © Issy Wood, 2023, courtesy the artist; Carlos/Ishikawa, London; and Michael Werner Gallery, New York. Photographer: Damian Griffiths.

Yet, at first, walking into Wood’s new solo show, Furni, felt like opening my eyes. Pushing open the heavy metal door to Carlos/Ishikawa – the small commercial gallery where Wood has shown work since art school, which is tucked down an unassuming side street, in an industrial unit, opposite a 24-hour snooker lounge – light immediately hits you in a burst. The single room where Wood’s works are displayed has sunlights high above, so elongated rhombuses of brightness slash across the space, making certain cuts of Wood’s usually-murky works glow. But, that’s the other thing that first strikes me – her murky palette seems to have lifted slightly, and her intense close-up gaze on folds of fabric and oddly-animated inanimate objects seems to have shifted slightly. Now, she’s looking at herself, and she’s looking at you.

"Smirking crockery swims out of the darkness"

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Issy Wood, Self portrait 46, 2023, Oil on linen, 42 x 29.5 x 2 cm
Image © Issy Wood, 2023, courtesy the artist; Carlos/Ishikawa, London; and Michael Werner Gallery, New York. Photographer: Damian Griffiths.

Self-portraits line every wall: some are big, some are small; in one Woods blows smoke, in another her face is half submerged in bathwater, and in the two largest canvases her face is covered in facemasks – one papery, wet and translucent, the other smudgy and green like pond water. But in all of them, this split-personality self-portrait version of Woods looks bored. Her vaguely kinky paintings, which have previously been described as works of ‘perverted realism’, seem to have been replaced by flat ennui – by what critic Jess Bergman, in an essay on the ‘perplexingly alienated’ female protagonists of contemporary fiction, dubbed ‘denuded realism’. Like those protagonists, Furni’s self-portraits seem to ‘possess a kind of anhedonic equanimity, more numb than overwhelmed.’ Indeed, I can imagine Woods listening to the audiobook of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation in her studio (the two certainly pair well together, as she perfects the grungy sheen to the green goo under her eye, or the way the sheet mask seems about to slip off her face, like a second skin. Instead of a bad hallucinogenic trip, these paintings are like Xanax. Remote and vaguely estranged, the dominant affect of Furni is a kind of semi-sad, semi-weary hollowness. They seem apathetic and tranquilised; detached and cool.

"the look of mint chocolate Vienettas"

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Detail View: Issy Wood, Self portrait 32, 2023, oil on linen, 215 x 175 x 5 cm

Image © Issy Wood, 2023, courtesy the artist; Carlos/Ishikawa, London; and Michael Werner Gallery, New York. Photographer: Damian Griffiths.

At the same time, however, much of this show is familiar Woods territory. Arranged around the room are bits of furniture that ostensibly give Woods’s show its name, and which have also become a bit of a trademark of hers. What could be better, after all, for an artist obsessed with capturing textures in oils, than covering soft furnishings in paint. It is here that symbols common to Woods’ work also abound: rabbits and cheerleaders; keys, locks, dice, clocks, chains and a twisted up ceramic swan. The cheerleaders in particular seem to have spilled over from her 2021 show at the gallery, Trilemma – there too their oily bodies did tricks on velvet cushions. Indeed, the entire set-up of Furni is similar to Trilemma. In both shows, vast and minute paintings alternate across the walls, and velvet ‘modular sofa systems’ daubed in thick paint sit in the centre. Back then, the sofa systems’ modules were perched on wooden legs – all mid-century chic and slightly reminiscent of both trendy London restaurants and a fancy group therapy session (or at least how one might appear on television). Now, the sofas are blocky; less spindly and more solid. They are also mint green and brown, where Trilemma’s were a sort of dark mustard green, giving the upholstered slabs the look of mint chocolate Vienettas. As in the self-portraits then, there is a lightening and a heightened girlishness to this aspect of the show also – a certain teenage quality, typified by the fact Trilemma included bundles of asparagus on its modules, while Furni has cans of Diet Coke.

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Detail View: Issy Wood, Furni 1, 2023, Sculpture: oil on velvet upholstered modular sofa system, 72 x 220 x 90 cm overall.
Image © Issy Wood, 2023, courtesy the artist; Carlos/Ishikawa, London; and Michael Werner Gallery, New York. Photographer: Damian Griffiths.

"Swallowed by the force of the trend they helped create"

To me at least, it seems there is a strong connection between Issy Wood as an artist and Carlos/Ishikawa as a gallery, aside from their years-long collaboration, and the fact the gallery space and Wood’s studio are right next door to each other. Both Wood and Carlos/Ishikawa are undeniably trendy, press-fêted, and remarkably well-established given their age, to the point of seeming emblematic of London’s contemporary art scene – and yet somehow also a little off-putting for precisely these reasons. In the same way reading that Carlos/Ishikawa opened in 2012 in a Whitechapel industrial unit that founder Vanessa Carlos described as ‘a microcosm of London’ – ‘you have an accountant, a Nigerian church, a mosque, a tattoo studio, a ghost kitchen, and the drug dealers’ – just seems, by now, a bit contemporary cliché, so too reading articles about Woods’s ‘double life as a painting sensation and ascendant pop star’ makes me think of niche-but-popular meme pages. The ones that skewer art students and East London scenes for their pretensions, and their commitment, above all else, to being cool. All the novels Bergman wrote about in her essay on ‘denuded realism’ feel a bit like this to me now too – tainted by overexposure. Swallowed by the force of the trend they helped create. So cool they start to leave me feeling cold.

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Installation View: Issy Wood, Furni, Carlos/Ishikawa, London, 2023. Image © Issy Wood, 2023, courtesy the artist; Carlos/Ishikawa, London; and Michael Werner Gallery, New York. Photographer: Damian Griffiths.

"Woods’ work seems to be about expectation itself"

On my first turn around Furni, this is how I felt. The boredom and ennui in Woods’s self-portraits made me feel bored. I’d seen it all before – these pretty white girl faces with plump lips looking sad, or at least, a bit worn down. For a few years now, it’s felt like that is the face of these times; the one beamed from films, novels, TV series, and the feeds on our constantly-clutched phones. On my first look around, I felt sick of luscious yet grungy alienation – more trendy content from a 30 year old white girl in the creative industries; a girl very much like me. But, then, I let myself have second thoughts. Ones that weren’t themselves hollow and surface level, ones that judged Woods’s artwork on first appearances. I thought of how Woods rejected the advances of both Gagosian – who wanted to represent her artworks – and Mark Ronson – who wanted to release her album via Sony Music – in favour of showing at Michael Werner and Carlos/Ishikawa, and putting out the record ‘My Body Your Choice’ independently. ‘Issy really, really resists being commodified and objectified,’ Carlos said after Woods rebuffed two of the creative industry’s powerful male players. ‘Sometimes she might be seduced by something shiny, but very quickly she can see through things. Her main compass has been integrity to herself and to her own work.’ I thought of how resistance to being commodified and objectified might, in an internet-saturated young artist’s hands – an artist who might add ‘lol’ after serious messages to inflect the whole thing with irony – look a lot like self-objectification. It might look like paintings of surfaces and disguises, masks and screens.

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Issy Wood, Self Portrait 31, 2022; Self Portrait 21, 2022; Self Portrait 1, 2021; oil on linen; 42 x 29.5 x 2 cm; 42 x 30 x 2 cm; 40 x 30 x 2 cm
Image © Issy Wood, 2023, courtesy the artist; Carlos/Ishikawa, London; and Michael Werner Gallery, New York. Photographer: Damian Griffiths

On second thoughts, Woods’ work seems to be about expectation itself, I mean. The expectation to look and behave a certain way, and to fit a certain model of success and contemporary cool. ‘Furni’ not only as internet slang for furniture clippings (like toenail clippings), but as in to furnish – to embellish and enhance, but also, more essentially, to supply and provide. I am a luxury product, Woods’s self-portraits seem to be saying. Even my distaste at my own commodification is marketable, and isn’t that boring but also lol.

By Eloise Hendy


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