Nick Hackworth

Bill Woodrow: The Beekeeper,South London Gallery

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

As Tina Turner once sang, “Women of a certain age don’t like taking chances — and play the waiting game”, which, happily, also serves as a damning critique of most internationally renowned artists of a certain age, who generally hang around, playing it safe, sticking to well-trodden and assured paths.

Pleasingly, Bill Woodrow bucks this trend. The work on display in this exhibition, all of it made in the past five years, represents the highpoint of what one might call allegorical figurative style in Woodrow’s work, which, given his origins in conceptual work, is the mark of a consistently inquisitive artist.

The first impression on walking into the exhibition is of having been transported to some scene from Alice in Wonderland. The gallery is full of sculptures that jostle for attention, losing out, momentarily, to the massive, seven-metre-long Shadow of the Bee-keeper, which dominates the room. It depicts the main character of the show, the beekeeper, a giant wooden puppet made up of rough-hewn wooden blocks, morphing into the shadow of a huge bee.

Elsewhere we see the beekeeper engaged in various different stages of his art — harvesting honey and releasing swarms, objectified as bulbous glass forms resting in the cool of a lake. Throughout his labours, the puppet form of the beekeeper is wading through, or drenched in, beeswax and the golden glow of honey fills the room.

Despite the fact that the allegorical meanings of the different elements within the beekeeper’s universe are never made explicit, the symbiotic relationship of the beekeeper with the bees seems to serve as some sort of model for the relationship between man and his environment.

Allegory, however, is a dangerous tool. The link between the physical object and the allegorical meaning it is meant to manufacture is a fragile one, dependent on a language of ideas that is shared by artist and audience. That language and link can only be stretched so far. Staring at the small series of sculptures entitled Beekeeper, Rock and Chicken I, II, III, it is hard to see anything other than the image of three roast chickens flying through the air, crapping beeswax on to the heads of three beekeepers sitting forlornly below.

Until 13 May, 65 Peckham Road, SE5. Tel: 020 7703 6120