I've written about Thomas Woodruff a few times now, and can't seem to stop. My enthusiasm for his work is bordering on mania, but better to go nuts over art than most other things, I think. His show of motorized, rotating paintings, "Solar System (The Turning Heads)," just closed at P.P.O.W. Gallery, and was an absolute tour de force. I had the pleasure of getting to ask Mr. Woodruff some questions about this project, as well as his general methodology and magicianship:
Phantasmaphile: How did you get started as an artist?
Thomas Woodruff: I was a peculiar child
who preferred pencil and paper to baseball and bat, and an old movie on TV to a
sunny day outside. As I got older, because I had spent so much time
practicing, I found I had developed real skills in making pictures, and this
opened many doors.
Ph: What inspires you? Who or what are some
of your influences?
TW: Inspiration is a fickle companion;
inclination and elbow grease are much more trustworthy. The key is
finding the right things to look at at the right time in your development.
Naturally for the solar system, I was looking at those fantastic,
obscure, northern symbolists. Artists like Knoph, Holdler, Moreau.
Art Nouveau came into play as well, the jewelry of Lalique, Fortuny's
fabrics. But I was also looking at van art. My diet is always
changing though. Recently I discovered
William Hoffman Beard, he's a new fascination. If I told you there
was a time when Agnes Martin was a great influence, you probably wouldn't
believe me, but it's true. I think you can be inspired by anything from
Da Vinci to "Charm School Rock of Love"...if you know what you were
Ph: What is your idea generating process like?
TW: I make notes, do sketches, and have plans for
years in advance of actually making the works. It gives the images a
depth of flavor, like making a stew...then I allow things to be changed and
altered when I'm in the midst of the making, to stay involved and in the
moment, but the initial ideas are always in place. I like to set up rules
for my game. It allows me to be more
Ph: What are your creativity rituals? Are there certain elements you prefer to have
in place when you create? (Time of day, music, beverage, etc.)
TW: I have always work best at night, there is
less distraction, and I prefer unnatural light. When the work is going
well, I often work till dawn. I like to listen to classical music on the
Ph: Your style is filled with all sorts of decoration
and embellishment. What is it about ornamentation that appeals to you?
TW: It seems a natural thing to me. Most
all art before our puritanical modernist age involved ornament. Ornamentation and decoration heighten levels of content: STUFF means things.
Ph: Your recent show, "The Solar
System" was utterly magnificent - truly one of my favorite shows I've ever
seen. I read that you became interested in flipped images when you found
out that these sorts of puzzles could be helpful for a friend of yours with
Alzheimers. I'm curious how you made the journey from developing this
technique to deciding to utilize it to depict cosmic deities?
TW: Thank you for the great compliment. I
found myself drawing upside-down heads while I was on the phone absentmindedly
grappling with issues of my friends' troubles, trying to make sure he would get
proper severance from his employer, etc. Those doodles developed into a series
of moon paintings, and eventually the planets came after that. My friend was an extraordinary dancer and
choreographer before his disease took effect, and the cosmic joke was right in
all our faces. His interest in music and complex choreography work gave
me the basic content that matured with my additional research on the solar
Ph: I love how these paintings are done on black
velvet – usually a visual shorthand for kitsch or questionable taste. It
seems to me like you are sort of winking at the viewer and taking the piss out
of the art world so to speak. Would you say that's a fairly accurate
TW: No, actually not at all. I hate winks,
it's kind of creepy and not too healthy. I was truly interested in the
effect of painting floating objects on the blackest of blacks, and to see if I
could make it beautiful and stunning. I'm amused with all the baggage a
viewer brings TO A FABRIC CHOICE. It just goes to show how easy we are
Ph: As I told you before, the sensation of
standing in a room with all of these rotating paintings was unlike anything
I've experienced in a gallery. It really threw off my center of gravity,
and felt a bit like being in some sort of mystic funhouse. I wonder if
you're sad the show will be broken up into individual sales, since they
presumably won't be in the same room again for quite some time, giving that
TW: I wanted to challenge my own perceptions, and
in doing so, challenge other viewers. This exhibition may be broken up,
because like my previous Freak Parade project, a book is in the works.
These paintings are meant to go out in the world. An artist must
document his or her production, but not become precious about it. The
aspect of total control should be in the studio when the work is created, and
when the work is completed, the artist should release the reigns a bit.
Ph: What happens when the batteries run out or
the motor dies? Do they come with a lifetime warranty?
TW: The motors were built by a company that
builds machines for Vegas, Times Square, etc. They should be working for a very long time.
There was quite a bit of research and development on them.
Ph: What are your next plans?
TW: Several projects. The primary one is the make my versions of the designs for the "Times of the Day" by Phillip Otto Runge. He was an interesting German romantic artist who died before he got to paint these four crazy/visionary images. I've loved them for a long time...even made a trip to Hamburg to see the ruins of one of his attempts.
Ph: Would you say that art is a kind of spiritual
practice for you?
TW: I think anything done with real intensity has rewards for one's spirit.