Lost: one conceptual artist

From 'art thief' to man of bronze. What is Bill Woodrow up to? By Iain Gale
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The Independent Culture
Bill Woodrow is the sculptor who came in from the cold. In the 1980s he was, along with Tony Cragg, a leading champion of "post-industrial" assemblage. Then, in 1987, Woodrow famously reneged on his Duchampian roots and embraced traditional bronze sculpture. The fruit of his labours, and examples of his contrasting earlier work, go on view at the Tate today. The publicists speak with pride about Woodrow's move into bronze as creating art with "a new weight and grandeur". But is this borne out by the work itself?

Initially a disciple of Richard Long, Woodrow, who was born in 1948, had by his early thirties eschewed nature in favour of an art focused on the everyday object. This is the man they called the "art thief". Woodrow prowled the streets of cities from London to LA, rifling through skips for discarded and broken TV sets, umbrellas and washing-machines. In a refinement of technique, Woodrow insisted that the pieces should include objects found as short as possible a distance away from the site at which they were to be exhibited.

Like his contemporary Richard Wentworth, he was able to re-invent the found objects he used in his work and imbue them with new significance relevant to the dreams of Everyman. Moreover, he had wit. In Hoover Breakdown, for example, a wooden model of a Hoover appears to be sucking up parts of a real Hoover. It's both a nice commentary on our need to imbue a fabricated work of art with the power of the original, and a revelation of how, in an artistic context, everyday objects become art and art must contain a reference to the everyday.

What is of particular interest in Woodrow's work from 1981 to 1987 is that the found object acts as a starting point for other linked elements of the piece. In the case of a work made in 1981, a car door is linked to a Native American head-dress, an ironing board and a twin-tub in a powerful statement on identity and culture.

The power of both the above works lies in the subtle counterpoint between the real and the created, which takes them into a unique world beyond the Duchampian aesthetic, blurring the destructive artificial barrier between traditionalist and conceptual.

But looking at Listening to History, made in 1995, it is hard to discern the intellectual rigour of the earlier pieces, or the magical, elegiacal qualities with which Woodrow was, in the past, able to bridge artistic distinctions.

In his catalogue essay, John Roberts describes the method of the old Woodrow - scrabbling about in the back streets of Peckham. But in truth it seems to be Roberts who is scrabbling around here for justification for his old friend's mysterious volte-face. His unconvincing contention is that in his early work Woodrow had discovered the vocabulary for the later pieces. It would seem, too, that, on account of modern casting being an essentially industrial process, Woodrow's work must remain within the "post-Duchampian" tradition which distinguishes between art and craft. By this argument, however, you might as well call Titian or Michelangelo - with their vast studios of apprentices - latent conceptualists.

We must judge by the evidence before our eyes, and on the strength of this showing Woodrow has done no more or less than his fellow sculptors Barry Flanagan, Gerald Laing and Glynn Williams, expressing his dissatisfaction with a medium and aesthetic by seeking the truth in more conventional means of expression. In Woodrow's case, however, the artist may have lost more than he has gained.

The title of the exhibition is "Fools Gold", a reference, we are informed, to the gap between "the illusion that the environment is cared for and the reality that it is being destroyed" and to "the foolishness of allowing financial ambitions to determine actions". Might it not also have a more ironic implication? Woodrow seems to be attempting to give his work a greater gravitas by employing materials and techniques which by tradition are associated with the art object. This is unnecessary and counter-productive. It is paradoxical that through this move an artist who, as a transformer of the everyday, was always something of an alchemist should have lost much of that magic without which this sculpture is no more than base metal.

n Tate Gallery, London SW1 (0171-887 8000) to 28 Apr