Delving deeper into our latest group exhibition on masculinity, “Virile”, we focus in on the work and practice of artist Wilfrid Wood – including an exclusive interview in his Hackney Wick studio.


 

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As you enter through the black doors of the House, you’re most likely met by our receptionist, Josh, or an angular, rather unconventional portrait of a boy called Theo in a fluorescent yellow hoodie. Described by some critics as an “ode to love”, this portrait by the artist Wilfrid Wood is one of two in our Spring exhibition “Virile” – originating from a collection of over one thousand portraits in Wood’s body of work that are solely focused on his boyfriend and muse.

Wood first met Theo Adamson back in 2016 after putting an advertisement out on the queer dating app, Grindr, inviting men to come sit for him. From one initial sitting to several in one month, what transpired was an unkept synergy between artist and muse that resulted in an addictive compulsion to return to easel and chair (or whatever surface in the house took fancy). Theo kept coming back and Wilfred kept on painting – sheet after sheet, there’d be a different angle, a different way to capture a quirk, and for Theo, a different way of exposing himself.

Six years on, Wood’s now boyfriend, Theo, is still a source of inspiration for his work. Wood comments how he’s a “specific kind of male” with “a particular and precise sort of face” that he’s become so familiar with, he’s “developed a kind of shorthand”, enabling him to depict Theo with ease and experimentation. Uniquely, despite Wood creating more portraits of Theo than most would create in a lifetime, no two are the same in essence, despite the identity of the subject remaining consistent.


 

Wilfrid Wood, Theo Smiling, 2019
Wilfrid Wood, Theo Smiling (2019)

 


 

Wood’s intimacy with Theo affords him time: to assess, observe, study and enjoy – which is what makes the relationship between the artist and his muse so bespoke. Not everyone is afforded that window to connect with another person. Wood comments how normally “I know I’ll only have a few hours with the sitter, so every moment is really precious: I have to put as much as I can into the picture” – to ensure nothing’s lost. In the domestic world they have created, there’s a vibration between Wood and Theo that means, despite Theo being “a shy sort of person”, that he owns the gaze, collaborating with Wood to give him aspects of himself that others may find hard to uncover.

Accepting that Wilfred’s body of work on Theo is an “ode to love”, it nods more towards its obsessive nature. We often imagine in our romanticised opinion of what love is, that it’s often driven by a kind of unattainability – to possess something that infatuates your senses, whether this is reciprocated or not. Wilfred, on the other hand, gives us a new take on love’s obsessive nature. To him, it’s not characterised by a mania but an ability to be still, perceiving the object of affection a hundred times over and still finding new ways of looking. It is an act of receival and reciprocation, rather than possession. It is not about reducing the model down to something stereotypically attractive but honouring a likeness to a person – in all their idiosyncrasies.


 

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In an exhibition that is centred upon the conflict in masculinity in the post-modern framework of gender politics and capitalism, Wilfred’s work contrasts this by situating its masculinity in innate comfort. When Wilfrid paints Theo, he does not create an idealised version of him – nor does he commit him to paper as a depiction of a man situated in a context that doesn’t belong to his own character. Instead, he liberates his characteristics – rouses them, even, as a radical act of devotion.

As you walk around this group show spanning two floors of our Grade I listed building, you’ll find an array of talented, international artists exploring depictions of the male subject – often in relation to their political context. You will find Theo as both your starting and your end point, as if to say – despite the flux and scrutiny of gender politics, in its traditions, stereotypes and radicalisms – love creates a kind of refuge from the confines of any form of societal commodification.

*Words by Eloise Tahourdin


We sat down with Wilfrid in his Hackney Wick studio to talk about what motivates him as an artist, what drew him to Theo as a subject, and what he’s working on now:


“Virile” is on show until May 31 and features 12 contemporary artists. Artworks are available for purchase. 25% of proceeds go straight to the House’s Employment Academy, which helps break the cycle of homelessness.

Members and non-members can visit the show by appointment. Please contact: [email protected] for appointments, tours and further information.