A highlight of The Royal West of England Academy‘s calendar, the autumn exhibition combines work of RWA Academicians and selected work from thousands of entries by emerging or otherwise unknown artists. Being one of these unknown artists – or more preferably ’emerging’ artist – I was greatly honoured to attend the artists’ autumn party on October 28th, and to be one of the first to view this show.
Walking up the steps of the grand old building that houses the Royal West Academy on a cold autumn evening, our coats were collected and the Prosecco flowed. Artists and guests mingled as we entered the first of the gallery’s rooms. The salon hanging was constrained but thoughtful, and presented every piece so that it could be viewed to its advantage. With over 500 images to hang, the curators had done a wonderful job. Compared to the cluttered floor and ceiling format of the The Royal Academy‘s recent summer exhibition, the show at Bristol was different; each piece of work mattered, each was given its own space to breathe. It was by far the finest art exhibition I have viewed for a long time.
There was no apparent order or ranking to the work of the Academicians, and those selected from outside the Academy were not separated off from these works. Large scale oil portraits demonstrated an execution reminiscent of the style of Caravaggio, illustrating themes of poverty and a depth of emotional despair that made me feel humble to be holding my glass of Prosecco within such a grand setting. These oil portraits sat comfortably among more abstract works in a way that highlighted the skill of the curators, and the quality of the images.
On plinths in the centre of most of the rooms stood exquisite bronzes of great technical calibre, each with breathtaking tactile aesthetic qualities. Other rooms held sculptures or cast models illustrating the more humorous side of everyday life. Making my way through the galleries, I was most impressed with the work in what I will refer to as the ‘monochromatic room’; pencil drawings and prints of images in subdued colours enticed me with their calming qualities.
What struck me most about this show, especially having seen my own photographic work upon its walls, is how photography has finally and completely been accepted, as any other image-making process, as Art. Even though the work in the show was so mixed, I was surprised to find so many original photographic images, even where the photography process had been taken a step further in their final presentation.
Finally, at the anointed hour, the doors to the great hall were opened and we merged together to view this final room and take our seats at tables, which had been laid out with an informal supper; what a great place to eat amongst such thought provoking art.
Those of us seated round our supper table had a heated but enjoyable and thought provoking discussion as to whether the oil portrait of a burlesque performer, so photographic in its execution, was really to the artist’s advantage . The consensus was that where a statement is being made about a person or subject concerning their character or lifestyle, photography can produce an image that illustrates this reality. However something deeper can only be signified within a painting or some other ‘artistic’ process – using different strokes or producing an abstracted image that doesn’t have to immediately strike the viewer as mimicking reality. Virtually everyone claimed that if you are to paint a person’s likeness then it should not be photographic in nature.
In some ways this appears to create a dichotomy with the images surrounding as many of the photographic images were extremely abstract in their character. In other words in my opinion if an artist wishes his painting to be photographic in nature then that is his privilege and choice in how he wishes to express himself; conversely if an artist utilising photography wishes to expand and disseminate his work into an abstract piece then that is his privilege and choice. Art is Art however its process is
The Royal West of England Academy’s 159th Autumn Exhibition:
30th October – 31st December 2011 https://www.rwa.org.uk