Not everyone likes Essie Wood paintings. Her brother, says the 29-year-old artist, recently asked her not to give him any more work. “He said he’d rather have a computer game,” she told me when we met in her London studio. The space is large and lit from above, filled with shelves of glossy tchotchkes and stacked with completed canvases; There is a small forest of plants and two sofas. I spot a spot on one of these, as Wood chooses to sit at a great social distance in front of me, on an office chair in the middle of the room, occasionally rolling a slim cigarette.
It is still post-pandemic. “I haven’t felt breath or touch anyone in months. I hope I’m not permanently damaged,” she says.
Even if her brother wasn’t keen, Wood’s work was received elsewhere. Her paintings, from small and pocket-friendly to a mighty two meters high and made on velvet, are unsettling and sometimes unfathomable. Accumulation of objects—dinner services, shoes, Chinese rabbits, and false nails—escaped through close-ups of puffa jackets, art-historic nudes, medieval armor, and ancient statues. The colors are muted, dark and dry. “Not everything has to be brightly colored for it to work,” says Wood. “Goya taught me how to use black properly. Courbet taught me about meat and clothes.”
Images are sourced from internet catalogs or auctions or drawn from still lifes (those tchotchkes) and build together the world, real and imaginary, that Wood inhabits. The paintings are not memoirs (and this is what happens in her blogs) but an evocation of her contemporary female life, with layers of pain and worlds of influence, often hovering around surrealism.
Shortly after our meeting, Wood will be heading to New York to show new work at the Michael Werner Gallery on the Upper East Side. Larry Gagosian had made a bid to represent her in the United States, and according to her blogger, Queen Baby, she was shocked when she turned him down. She says Werner “seems like an unpleasant move,” though it’s a move that would put her along with a group of painters. The gallery, now under the direction of Gordon VeneKlasen, specializes in painting – Peter Doig, Per Kirkeby – although rarely with female artists.
About 28 canvases have already been sent to Manhattan. One of them shows a car seat, a recurring theme that seems to suggest a sinister and immature side to masculinity. “It’s a Porsche interior. It appears to have been designed by Bridget Riley. There is another type of tooth, which is also a dentition, in a mouth beyond red lips.” It’s a diagnostic tool. You can tell how happy someone is from their teeth — if they grind them down, if they are damaged by acid wear,” she says. Wood herself has always struggled with eating disorders and left traces of illness in her mouth.
Wood was born in the United States to British parents – both medical professionals – and quickly returned to England. She studied fine art at Goldsmiths and Royal Academy Schools in London, and by 2016, while still in RA, was spotted by Vanessa Carlos of Carlos/Ishikawa, a London gallery skilled at nurturing emerging artists. “It was nice to start with a young woman like Vanessa looking for me,” Wood says. “Women rule my family on both sides – through sheer power on my father’s side and soft power over my mother. A delicate eye roll.”
Wood’s ascent, under Carlos’s close supervision, was remarkably rapid. Last year, a two-meter-long puffer jacket in glossy black and soft green, called “Over Armor,” was sold at Christie’s in New York for $479,000, and its record was set at Sotheby’s with “Study for Goes Both Ways,” showing These car seats again, for $504,000.
Wood tells me that she believes in the 10,000-hour rule of extended practice, and her increased ability is in her work. She is not just a painter, but a sharp and fluent musician and writer. “A triple threat,” says Sarah McCrory, director of Goldsmith’s Contemporary Arts Center, which set up Wood Gallery in 2019. “She is inexhaustible, prolific. When we took all the paintings from her studio for viewing, she felt her immediate impulse was to fill it in again.”
Writing and Transcendental Meditation “are what keep me afloat,” Wood says of drawing. She meditates every day before breakfast, then works herself to the end in the studio, especially when she’s painting on richly colored velvet, which is hard to do. “I started it in RA, when I was going through one of those unsafe stages, I was worried that painting on canvas was boring,” she says. Now – no matter how difficult it is – defines its practice. “You can’t use anything wet or any solvent, so I mess up the brush and it hurts my arms.”
Results are choppy and dense – no reflection on the surface – and possibly with some preservation issues going forward. “The most lustful people for my velvet paintings are the most mercenaries,” she notes. They are most likely to return them to the auction. So let’s see how it turns out.”
In the evening she makes music on her kitchen table. The latest output, called the album My body is your choice, came out in August, after three episodes and two singles. The music has a poor quality on purpose: the tracks include “I just called to say I hate you.” In 2019, she started working with producer Mark Ronson – he loaned her a Roland synthesizer and gave her a LinnDrum. “Nobody ever heard of my stuff and made me feel good about making it,” she says. She signed to his Zelig brand in November 2019, but in January 2020, the separate company signed. Wood, who refuses to register anywhere other than her kitchen, saw Ronson adding extra tools to her work and cutting the occasional hair. “I turned it from a hobby into something else, and it wasn’t the right move,” she says now.
This year, Lena Dunham directed a video for Wood’s single “Both”, in which actress Harry Neff starred in Wood. “It’s hard to hand control over, but I trust Lena’s eye for anything,” Wood says. She was a big fan of Dunham’s TV series girls – “I loved the characters, they are all very flawed and all are horrible.” Video, like music, is spare and simple. Wood went to Dunham’s wedding in September 2021 in London, where Taylor Swift paid tribute to her drawing. “I didn’t dare tell her that I also make music.”
It’s not hard to imagine Wood, with her trendy faded hair and long fringed slob, taking to the stage. Yet she refuses to be photographed for this article, another legacy of her disfigurement flaw. What if someone took her picture? “I’m going to perform,” she says. “I will do something. I will not pretend.” actually no. She will fulfill the challenge that she has set herself.
The Time Sensitive Show runs until November 12th. michaelwerner.com. “My Body, Your Choice” is available with Music Unlimited
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