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Exhibition Review

Paintings, words, and songs: a review of Issy Wood’s I Like to Watch

Eazel Magazine

Oct 06, 2023

Porsche driver starter pack, 2023
Oil on linen
21 x 30 x 2 cm (8.26 x 11.81 x 0.78 in.)
© Issy Wood, 2023
Courtesy of the artist, Carlos/Ishikawa, London, and Michael Werner Gallery, New York
Photo: Damian Griffiths
Image provided by Ilmin Museum of Art, Seoul




Exquisite figurative painting meets millennial energy and blasé pop at Issy Wood’s debut solo exhibition in Korea. I Like To Watch is currently showing at Ilmin Museum of Art in central Seoul, displaying a range of works by the London-based artist, musician and writer. Hailing from Durham, North Carolina, and raised in South London, Wood pursued art at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, where she captured the interest of Vanessa Carlos from Carlos/Ishikawa, London. The gallery would go on to propel the young artist’s career into the high ends of the market, making her one of today’s most in-demand contemporary painters. 


Also dabbling in writing, Wood reveals herself to be as critical of her work as she is aware of its success. Her personal thoughts occupy her blogs like possessive demons, dissecting her life and mind in snippets that are sometimes conjured up in her artworks. Claiming to evade the chores of meaning-making, Wood affirms visual art as solely her profession, and music as her hobby. This devil-may-care spirit accompanies Wood’s Seoul exhibition. From small, almost miniature paintings on the first floor to gigantic portraits and a medley of works on the upper levels of the museum, I Like To Watch acts as a multi-faceted introduction to Wood’s equally eclectic world. 



Installation view of Issy Wood’s Floor 2 (2019) at Ilmin Museum of Art, Seoul
© Ilmin Museum of Art
Photo: Seoul Metropolitan Government, Seoul Council of Art Museums



Upon entering the first viewing room on the first floor, one cannot help but notice the contrast of Ilmin Museum’s big, white walls and Wood’s almost hand-sized paintings. Her recent works sit next to slightly older ones in what appears to be a random order. Wood’s close-ups of a denim-clad crotch, a retro sports car, and a pair of locks first catch the eye. Perhaps the seemingly unconnected subjects are meant to be read in a linear narrative, but the physical distance and ambiguous communication between the small paintings suggest otherwise. 


Moving in, almost unnoticeable at first, is a black-tiled floor with numbers in disarray and a scattered garden. If the world was a dystopian clock soaring through spacetime dimensions while self-destructing in a black void, it would be captured in this floor. This clock seems to stop at several moments, but it cannot see enough of one scene before it is transported to another, thus the blurred, aesthetic fragments of flowers and leaves. The only thing in focus, unsliced by the borders of the tiles, are miniature figures of dogs. These canine creatures are rather symbolic to Wood, a familiar tidbit to avid readers of her online blogs. Agents of unconditional love to the artist, dogs represent a warmth that might burn at any moment, resulting in ineffaceable scars. The dogs on the black tiles of Floor 2 (2019) are just a few of the many miniature animals peppered throughout the exhibition. Walking across the floor, one can be tempted to trace a pattern, to find missing parts and see a link of sorts. Yet such endeavors might yield no results in the case of this strange puzzle – some drawings seem to connect to each other, but upon closer inspection, those faint links quickly fall apart.


Above the floor, the line of small paintings continues. One of them, titled Marvin 2 (2022), features a furry gray cat preying on pigeons. Its golden eyes size up the sassy pair of birds – the whole thing a picture of dumb intelligence and murderous innocence. Following the line, down the small flight of stairs away from the clock world, past the strappy heels of the Sexual lady (2023), at the complete end of the room, is the fluffy rabbit slipper on the checkered race car carpet. Porsche driver starter pack (2023) is “all the rage” on the posters for this show, a proud tiny painting of feathery brushstrokes and iconic colors.



Installation view of Issy Wood’s Rill rill (2023) at Ilmin Museum of Art, Seoul
© Ilmin Museum of Art
Photo: Seoul Metropolitan Government, Seoul Council of Art Museums



COP26 (2022) welcomes visitors to the second floor of the exhibition. The choice of material – velvet – seems synonymous with the artist’s technique, blending with her brush so naturally that it becomes unnoticeable. Further inside, a painting of bells on green velvet plays a trick on the eye. Rill rill (2023) is a thrilling sight, with a fabric whose color shifts with the light depending on the angle and a figurative rendition that appears almost three dimensional. 


The second floor of the exhibition is all about big paintings and extreme close-ups. If the Porsche rabbit shoes are tiny, the zoomed-in teeth with braces in Look Ma, no cavities (2023) are gargantuan. The artworks are voyeuristic in nature, no doubt inspiring the title of the show. The close-ups have a double function of showing too much and not showing enough, exacerbating tension. Meaning is sometimes obscured in favor of mystery in Wood’s work. Viewing her paintings is a see-saw exercise; one oscillates between admiring the aesthetics of a cow print jacket in Untitled (How now) (2023), and perusing the piece as a moment in the existential ennui of the 21st century. 



Installation view of Issy Wood’s I Like To Watch at Ilmin Museum of Art, Seoul, 2023
© Ilmin Museum of Art
Photo: Seoul Metropolitan Government, Seoul Council of Art Museums



No canvases are mounted on the walls of the third-floor hall. Instead, an assortment of clothes is on display, perched on a wide hanger that forms a rectangular halo around the space. In the middle of the installation, titled Study for good will (2019), on the floor is a selection of boots. The clothes seem to have been either thrifted, perhaps at charity stores on the streets of London, or rescued from the trash. Some have stains, some are crumpled, but all of the items feature a side that has been painted by Wood. The juxtaposition of the artist’s coveted art on secondhand clothes calls for a rather divided interpretation. For instance, while this calculated arrangement can be the carrier of a rather hefty comment on commercialization within the fashion and art worlds, considering Wood’s laid-back disposition vis-a-vis her own art, it can also be simply just that: a cheeky layering.


Viewing it in Seoul, the installation is reminiscent of two extremes of the fashion world: the hip, minimalist high-end boutiques in areas like Myeongdong or the maximalist, borderline tacky neighborhood shops dispersed around the city. In both cases, the items seem designed for flashiness. They are meant to be watched.


On the right end of the hall is a shelf arranged with Wood’s diary-like blogging in book format. At the edge lay some volumes that can be handled by the audience. This corner of the exhibition, rather modest in its setting, seems to be a stage for the launch of a new book series by an unknown author, with samples made available to see if the content is worth time and money. Yet, this same content is on the walls of the museum, spread across all three floors, as big as the paintings. 


An introduction to the painter, thus becomes a platform for Issy Wood, the writer, and at the far end of the third floor in a small room is a stage for Wood, the musician. The lyrical, musical, and visual composition of Wood’s songs and their respective music videos are like the gin to the tonic of her paintings, complemented by the lemon slice of her writings. They all have the same grunginess and aesthetically pleasant unease, very characteristic of the brand that is Issy Wood.



Issy Wood’s I Like To Watch is on view at Ilmin Museum of Art, Seoul from Sep 7 - Nov 12, 2023. For more information about the exhibition, please click here.