Women with Vision @ the Royal West of England Academy

I like the way the Royal West of England Academy layout is slightly confusing, making it a bit of a warren to explore, with unexpected treasurers round each corner, and the smell of the cosy café with its real coffee and organic health food a constant temptation.

Thus at the moment the RWA’s overarching theme is Women with Vision, four separate exhibitions of women artists designed to celebrate:

1. Vote100, the centenary of women gaining the vote (In 1918, Parliament passed an act granting the vote to women over the age of 30 who were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5, and graduates of British universities. About 8.4 million women gained the vote. But it was only in 1928 that Parliament passed the Representation of the People [Equal Franchise] Act that extended the voting franchise to all women over the age of 21, granting women the vote on the same terms as men.)

2. 140 years since the RWA opened its doors. It has always featured women among its members and exhibitors and is celebrating the fact.

Frink-Blow-Lawson

The main space consists of two very big light airy rooms upstairs. These are housing a joint exhibition of work by

  • Dame Elisabeth Frink CH DBE RA (1930-1993)
  • Sandra Blow RA (1925-2006)
  • Sonia Lawson RA RWS RWA (b.1934)

Elisabeth Frink

Briefly, Dame Elisabeth is known for her haunting sculptures, generally figurative, of animals of people, always done in a way that you can see the hand modelling, the working of the clay which made up the original casts i.e. very much not smooth and perfect. There were nine pieces, big and small, in the main gallery.

Sculptures by Elisabeth Frink at the RWA. Photo by Lisa Whiting

Sculptures by Elisabeth Frink at the RWA. Photo by Lisa Whiting

I wanted to like them but in fact none of them did it for me like the two enormous pieces in the RWA’s entrance hall, In memoriam III and Walking man.

In Memorian III by Dame Elisabeth Frink. Photo by Lisa Whiting

In Memorian III by Dame Elisabeth Frink. Photo by Lisa Whiting

Maybe I lack subtlety and refinement, but these two pieces just have a semi-carton-like, slightly science fiction effect, which I find immediately compelling.

Walking man (Riaces I) by Dame Elisabeth Frink. Photo by Lisa Whiting

Walking man (Riaces I) by Dame Elisabeth Frink. Photo by Lisa Whiting

These images are widespread. I’m sure the Bristol gallery just down the road has a similar head; Tate in London has a version of the walking man and I saw one in the Lightbox Gallery in Woking a year or two ago. Maybe I like them because they’re familiar.

Sandra Blow

Sandra Blow’s works are massive abstract works, generally with rags and scraps of material attached to the canvas to make them 3-D and break up the surface. There was no particularly consistent use of shapes or patterns – compared to artists I’ve recently seen like Jean Arp (blobby zoomorphic shapes) or Mondrian (rigid geometrical lattices) Blow’s feel bigger, freer, incorporating whatever shapes, swirls, gestures, take her fancy and feel appropriate.

Installation view of the Sonia Blow room at RWA. Photo by Lisa Whiting

Installation view of the Sonia Blow room at RWA. Photo by Lisa Whiting

I liked the scale and freedom of all of them but particularly warmed to Breakwater and Helix.

Sonia Lawson

Lawson comes in two completely different flavours. both using oil on very big canvases but to completely different effect. On the left wall are very figurative works depicting, for example, Grieving womanPortrait of my motherGarrison town.

Installation shot of paintings by Sandra Blow. Photo by Lisa Whiting

Installation view of paintings by Sandra Blow. Photo by Lisa Whiting

On the opposite wall hang a set of much more abstract works. She River was inspired by poems by the poet Linda Saunders and depicts a dried-up river bed with dragonflies hovering over it. A photo cannot convey the extent to which Lawson has incised and engraved lines all over the canvas, creating a rich sense of texture. Close up this incision and scouring is incredibly exciting and vibrant.

She river by Sonia Lawson (2005)

She river by Sonia Lawson (2005)

This is the lightest and happiest of the works here, but all of them use this technique of incision and carving into the paint to great effect. Next to it is the completely different Herd (1996), which consists of rows of deer depicted in the primitive style of cave paintings, ordered in rows as in a frieze from the ancient world. Very powerful.

Installation view of paintings by Sandra Blow. Photo by Lisa Whiting

Installation view of paintings by Sandra Blow. Photo by Lisa Whiting

Women of the RWA

Through a door from the main two big rooms is a series of three smaller spaces.

Two of these are devoted to ‘Women of the RWA’. Women were admitted to the RWA since its foundation in the 1840s and these rooms give an overview, a selection, of work by women RWAs over the past few centuries. The earliest ones are cheesy realistic paintings of cats by Augusta Tallboys, right through to ultra-modern sculptures and canvases, and featuring such famous names as Dame Elizabeth Blackadder, Gillian Ayres OBE and Vanessa Bell.

The work is really so utterly varied that it’s impossible to make any generalisations except that there have been scores of interesting women artists born or based in the South-West. In this photo you can see Double Hare by Sarah Gillespie and Fishes by Chien-Ying Chang.

Installation view of Women of the RWA

Installation view of Women of the RWA. Photo by Lisa Whiting

I like the RWA. Away from London, it feels less pressurised, less high profile, big money. The art is always more varied, more relaxed, more unexpected. You can like what you like.

Cornelia Parker: One day this glass will break

The final room in the set is devoted to an exhibition of work by Cornelia Parker OBE. She has been experimenting with photogravure which, as I understand it, is placing objects on prepared photographic paper to create an image which isn’t a photograph in the conventional sense, but which nonetheless captures the object, with a spooky aura. They’re all conventional print-sized black and white works, depicting wine decanters, glasses, cups, light bulbs, grapes and so on – a kind of experimental photographic twist on the still life genre.

Installation view of One Day This Glass Will Break. Photo by Lisa Whiting

Installation view of One Day This Glass Will Break. Photo by Lisa Whiting

Parker’s most famous for the works where she submits objects to extreme treatment, blowing them up as in Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991). I particularly like Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988-9) where, as the Tate website puts it, she selected:

a thousand flattened silver objects, including plates, spoons, candlesticks, trophies, cigarette cases, teapots and trombones. All the objects were ceremoniously crushed by a steamroller at Cornelia Parker’s request. She then arranged the transformed silver artefacts into thirty disc-shaped groups, which are suspended about a foot from the floor by hundreds of fine wires.

That strikes me as being post-modern, conceptual, punk art genius. These photogravure prints were pretty enough but not, I felt, in the same league.

Anne Redpath

On the ground floor is the small exhibition room where I saw PJ Crook’s exhibition, Metamorphoses, a few months ago. Now it’s showing works by Anne Redpath, the first woman elected as a Royal Scottish Academician. To be honest, I was so overflowing with impressions from the previous wealth of images and sculptures, big and small, that I didn’t have the headspace to take this in.


Related links

The RWA has a very good visual presence on the internet. It’s website has galleries of images for each of its exhibitions, and it has a great photostream on Flickr.

Other RWA reviews

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