June 2015 Exhibitions at RWA Bristol
Having been involved in the taking down of the previous exhibitions ‘Drawn’ and ‘Drawing On…’ and seeing the galleries last in that state of disarray and refurbishment with the detritus of paint pots, ladders, bubble wrap and picture fittings strewn, it was an amazing site that next greeted me!
Rushing to catch the wonderful staff and stewards briefing before the Private View I turned from the marble stairs, into the gallery on a gloriously sunny evening to find myself being truly “wowed” by the remarkable black bronze floor structures, and ink wall hangings of Peter Randall-Page. These vast seed like rock structures are particularly placed, so that the floor joists will support them, however they convey the feeling that they are perhaps boulders in a desert setting or, as if the tide has gone out and left the underwater world behind, with the sun having dried them leaving a black and bobbled coating. The desire is to touch, but of course we must not! Objects to invite and provoke thought and reflection however, as the sun bounced off the polished floors, adding a further dimension to the whole.
And then there were the hangings against the newly refreshed white walls, with black and rich earth browns of great ink drawings, that seemed like rivers running upwards or so it seemed! Was it to the sea or roots of trees, and then ahead a vast wooden screen, with what seemed like black twisted seaweeds covering textured cream paper ahead of me. It was a wonderful moment to which at that moment I only caught a glimpse in my rush; but did just catch out of the corner of my eye, a great wing structure spread across one wall! I would need to return, and for which later, I was so glad. As I discovered by chance, as we moved around the exhibits, the best place from which to view this inspiring spectacle.
In the side Methuen Gallery have been hung a collection from the Newlyn School artists. These works are to me charming, even if now out of date, and potentially slightly ‘saccharinely’ sentimental. But they were ground breaking in their day, with a new way of using the colour and brush work. They’ll potentially pull you back and give a small moment of reverie to our rural past, as seen at the close of the 19th Century flowing into the 20th. At once many of us over 50 will recall those old railway posters from an Edwardian era, and the familiarity from greeting cards, such as the Henry La Thangne RA 1889 ‘Landscape Study’ with the girl walking with her geese, her back to us, with the white ties of her apron so clear against her white geese. A safe and friendly moment and perhaps something to share with children.
It was fascinating hearing RWA’s excellent Director Alison Bevan talking about this group of artists, I learned much. Later I found that in fact something about this capturing of a rural way of life, now gone, does in one or two paintings touch me, and all seem almost to be the echo of the superbly moving black and white photos exhibition by James Rivilious in the Milner Gallery. They are superb photos taken in the 1960 and 70s of another way of depicting a factual rural life – also now almost gone – something profound came from these photo images, treasured jewelled moments of times past we’ve knows. And with the accompanying and brilliant film constantly playing which shows the reality of farming life, birth and death and the care of great cart horses. I found this exhibition tremendously moving in its own right; photography as a medium has always captivated me. And all this is still part of the whole interconnectedness of all the works in the galleries, all linked by association and connecting throughout to the themes to Bristol’s European Green Capital status. Seeing the milk churns being put ready for collection, reminded me of just such sights long ago in North Wales, milk churns waiting on an ancient stone step at the corner of a lane nestling into the hedge. (And should anyone have just read James Rebanks moving book: “The Shepherd’s Life” then it will be even more of a treat, and offer a moment of synchronicity.)
But to return to the Methuen Gallery and the Newlyn School. I find as I look at these works that I am reminded of those idyllic Cornish childhood holidays, carefree and joyful in quiet country lanes and that Cornish light and freshness, the powerful hard rocks of those harbour creeks and clear azure waters, as well as the glimpsed tin and clay mine workings. And in “The Sunny South”1885 by Walter Langley RI I was reminded of the old gardner at my Grandmother’s house and in the distance a tiny harbour similar to Gorran Haven the tiny fishing harbour. I remember too the lambs in the fields around us, and the corn being made into stooks, seen here in the delightful picture by Helene Schjerfbeck done in 1888, “Chickens among Cornstooks”. I liked the freer flow she found and wondered if it was due to her time painting in France, as had been the case with others of the Newlyn School. In contrast is the ‘Gwavas Cornfield’ by Thomas Cooper Gotch who allows us to think of a wider open countryside. Then again, a bus in the distance has entered the scene in “The Road to Market’’ by Henry La Thangne RA where a jig is still the mode of transport; a moment of time, like tides are on the turn! While next to this is the“The Young Ploughman” working his great carthorses across the land.
From this Newlyn School, you will then have to retrace your steps into the main Sharples Gallery. After walking around Peter Randall Page’s great floor bronzes, you walk behind his great rather Japanese style screen, which lightly curves to fill the gallery divide, to find your-self in the Winterstoke Gallery an another modality altogether. Here you will find the extraordinary work of Kate MccGwire, a study with feathers! What awaits the visitor is quite incredible and so I do not wish to give away the surprize, however her great work called “Gyre” will amaze; an object I found quite overwhelming. I was struck by the colour from all the feathers used, and fascinated by the work and years that have gone into Kate’s meticulous work. In smaller pieces the luminosity of blues and purples that sing out, give a new awareness and respect for the beauty of birds we know so well, looking at“Hoard” from 2015 and “Swell,” or being captivated by “Sepal Speculum”. The attention to detail and precision is remarkable throughout, and one can only be awed at such dedication using such a fine intricate medium. To achieve the desired effects, often Kate MccGwire is using one specific tail feather from one individual bird, so that as she lays them in circles or curves the way they lie is precise and locked in form, of itself a great piece of creativity. In the end though, it is the circle forms and degrees of vibrant colour they give, that moved me the most. And one does have to stand at various angles, in various changing light to see just how powerful this is, standing back gives such another dimension.
It’s then time to re-enter the Sharples Gallery, which I suggest doing from the righthand side of the screen as you stand looking at it from behind. For as you emerge and look left, there spread out across the far wall, is “Wing” by Peter Randall Page. It covers a wall and yet with it’s mirroring form feels light, like a wing, and once more there is the echo of the feathers just seen. The specially fired clay apparently can no longer be obtained, and the grainy rich textures and tones add a depth that demands inspection. Each piece was fired and then laser cut to give the astonishing effect, yet each piece seems to have its unique complexity. I then turned away from this lovely work, and looked down the gallery to the black ink work, “Sap River V” that suddenly reminded me of being in France around the Lot region and seeing silver birch woods. The special Indian papers Peter uses and has made are like linen and have such a texture that again it is as if cloth is hanging to dry. But it was the large brown ink piece opposite ‘Wing’, with icing feather forms, that I found drew me in to look and look again.
I urge anyone who can, to try and come and see these exhibitions. You’ll need time (and there’s always the Café or terrace for a sit down), but it is an wonderful experience, and so utterly different in presenting such a varied and diverse range of mediums, yet all are linked and connecting to what we have known, and know. Something I am sure for everyone.
Thea Bailey, June 2015
Steward at RWA.