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28th July 2016

Interview: Wilfrid Wood

Art that makes you laugh can be a tricky proposition. Amusement is a momentary reaction – unless there’s something deeper at work, its impact can be lost by the time you leave the gallery. ‘Serious’ art thunders through the centuries; satire often survives only in curiosity shops. 

Wilfrid Wood walks the line. His caricatures, satirical sculptures and cartoonish figurines invariably provoke laughter, or at very least a wry schoolboy smirk – in much the same vein as the Spitting Image puppets he used to work on – but there’s a craftsmanship to their construction, an uncanny eye for detail and a gleeful roving mind behind them that makes them much more than simple 3D gags. 

Wilfrid put down his plasticine long enough to share his thoughts on satire, art, dogs, Putin and the preconceptions that colour the way we see an image…

Let’s get the Spitting Image thing out of the way – are you fed up of talking about it?
Not at all. It saved my life; up until then I had a dull job in publishing. Spitting Image showed me that it was possible to get paid for having fun. It also acts as shorthand to explain what I do; I say I used to work there and what I do now is similar but different.

Which of the Spitting Image heads you worked on are you most proud of?
I hardly made any heads. I constructed eyeball and blink mechanisms, together with various animals – two-headed fish, boiled dogs, aliens. One head I did make was Rolf Harris.

Could the show be made today? Would it still work, or have humour/politics changed too much? (Armando Iannucci recently said that he couldn’t bring back the Thick of It because politics had gone beyond parody)
People are always saying Spitting Image should come back. There was a pale imitation of it tried recently. Contemporary politics really has gone beyond parody – it seems as though people are voting for entertainers rather than politicians. A problem for satire is that its much more fun to take the piss out of people who take themselves seriously than those who are already aware of themselves as semi-comedians like Boris and Donald. A caricature of someone who is already funny isn’t funny at all.

Do you think satire or caricature can be considered ‘art’?
The ’what is art?’ question. The problem with satire and caricature is that it can be one-dimensional. Art needs to work on several levels at once. It’s the same with humour in art – it’s dangerous because real art needs to be more than a one-liner. 

All portraits have a level of caricature in them; elements of the subject are emphasised or de-emphasised. The French artist Daumier did caricatures but they are so subtle and well observed that they definitely fall into the art category. David Shrigley makes jokes but they usually have strange undertones that up the art bit.

You’ve spoken before about creating works that exhibit wit – how do you define ‘wit’?
Yes that’s it. A friend of mine said I should stop making obvious visual jokes because they are too limiting. I think he has a point. I want to create something that resonates with the viewer after they have left the image, not something hilarious and instantly forgettable. But it’s a fine line.

Is there anything too serious to be funny?
Gosh, that’s another endlessly debated question… I’ve heard it said that humour is tragedy plus time. I’m writing this on the morning after a lorry ploughed through crowds of people in Nice. I’m not sure it will ever be possible to make actual jokes about this, but there is plenty of scope to make wry comments about terrorists, the West’s role in terrorism, extremist religion, etc.

Do you worry about not being taken seriously as an artist because you make people laugh?
Being middle aged means you either start accepting yourself or live the rest of your life frustrated. I’d love to be a cool conceptual artist but that’s not going to happen. I don’t have the intellect or ability to look at things in an abstract, dispassionate way. I’m interested in people. I’m proud of being able to make people laugh with a static object. I have a friend who is a playwright; he says he is addicted to getting laughs in the theatre because it’s the only sure way of knowing that an audience ‘gets it’. The same goes for me, if someone lets out a genuine laugh or even smile then I know I have connected.

Tell us about your process – what materials do you use?
Cheap materials like polymer clay, paper maché and plasticine. I like to sketch on crappy paper too, so as not to get precious. I hate sketchbooks where you’re scared to do a bad drawing. I don’t know why art schools always recommend them.

Your busts and figurines tend towards people with a ‘questionable’ reputation. What inspires you to make an artwork of someone?
It’s usually the combination of what they look like and who they are! I’m fascinated by faces and whether someone’s looks can give you a clue as to who they are. 

You know that famous mug shot of Fred West? If he walked past you in the street, would you guess he was a serial killer? If someone showed you his photo and said he had been the best dad ever, would you doubt it? Of course, as soon as you know what he did he looks deeply sinister. What would a photograph of the baby Hitler tell you? Probably nothing, though you might look deeply into his eyes for signs of evil. In retrospect, does every single photo of Jimmy Saville look terrifying? Yes! What does David Cameron look like? A privileged Eton toff making the rich richer or an upstanding chap working for the common good? 

A lot of ‘correct’ thinking tells us not to make assumptions by appearance, yet we do it automatically. It’s fun to confuse these expectations. A while ago I made a head of the beautiful young Putin, I wanted to make something where you looked carefully for a hint of the man the boy would become.

Do you ever dislike your own work?
Of course! Looking at old work is like waking up after a party with a terrible hangover and regretting all the stupid things you said. It’s awful to see how swayed by fashion we are. Fifteen years ago there was a craze for designer toys – most of which now look awful – which I was influenced by. I think my work is much better now. But then artists always do! It’s pathetic! You’re forever hearing people like Paul McCartney saying his latest album is the best he’s ever done when it plainly isn’t the case.

What’s with all the dogs?
Dogs come second only to humans in their variety of characters so make ideal subjects.

Which other artists do you admire?
Billions! At the moment I like freaky videos on Instagram, presumably made by teenagers in their bedrooms. They’re totally unregulated and un-PC. There’s one of Hilary Clinton smoking a bong and coughing that makes me cry with laughter.

How do you want to be remembered?
I’m not massively into being remembered, which is why I’m sculpting with plasticine. I’d rather have as much fun and as interesting a life as possible right now.


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