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British Artistic Team John Wood and Paul Harrison Debut First U.S. Museum Survey at the University Art Museum
John Wood and Paul Harrison, Production still from ‘Shelf’ (2007). ©John Wood and Paul Harrison. Photo: Courtesy of the artists.

SANTA BARBARA, CA.- The University Art Museum debuts the first U.S. museum survey of the British artistic team John Wood and Paul Harrison. Combining aesthetic restraint and slapstick performance, Wood and Harrison are ingenious inventors, stuntmen, and occasional masochists who often employ their own bodies as “raw material.” Their low-tech films contain no special effects or gimmicks. Instead, using a variety of simple props, the artists primarily remain sculptors who use video to record the actions of their various experiments. Their video shorts reflect witty references to early cinema and reveal a sophisticated awareness of art and art history, as they highlight the quality of inventive play behind all art. Wood and Harrison’s unique blend of the absurd and erudite, the high and low, the philosophical and funny, captures both a sense of wonder and the thrill of experimentation, all grounded in a reverence for the physics of everyday life.

John Wood and Paul Harrison, a British collaborative duo, make spare, succinct video works that blend minimal and conceptual art and existential comedy. In their not-always-successful experiments with their bodies and a wide range of still and moving objects, Wood and Harrison employ exuberant invention, subtle slapstick, and a touch of melancholy to illustrate the triumphs and tribulations of making art and having a life.

Meeting at the Bath College of Higher Education in 1991, the artists have worked together since 1993 and share a studio in Wood’s city of Bristol, to which Harrison commutes from his home in Birmingham. They have forged a creative partnership based on physical trust and equal ownership of ideas and roles, although they both agree that Wood, the shorter, stockier of the two, is the better straight man and often cast him as such.

Their low-tech works contain no special effects or gimmicks other than occasional tracking shots and edits that give the appearance of seamless movement. The visual and physical language Wood and Harrison have developed harkens back to the late 1960s and works by video art pioneers like Bruce Nauman, Joan Jonas, and William Wegman that were casual and bare-bones, focusing on artists performing simple tasks. Like these predecessors, Wood and Harrison also are influenced by new theories of performance developed in the 1960s by dancers like Yvonne Rainer, who believed that inspired amateurs, performing to the best of their abilities, were as valid as trained professionals. Other influences include the physical feats of silent film stars like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd; the uniquely British humor of comedy troupes like Monty Python and the double act Morecambe and Wise; and the existential dramas of Samuel Beckett.

The studied neutrality of their performances and spaces, as well as the recurring interests in grids, sequences, combined with an illustrational “how-to” quality in their videos indicate that Wood and Harrison are steeped in the culture of reductive and idea-based art. No matter how absurd, Sisyphean, or masochistic, Wood and Harrison reveal the inventive play behind all art, even its most advanced strains.

The University Art Museum | John Wood | Paul Harrison |

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