Art review – RWA Open Exhibition 166

Daydream by John Huggins. Photo by Judy DarleyThe galleries at the Royal West of England Academy (RWA) have a grandeur about them that rivals many of the world’s finest art museums. Their annual open exhibition opens up those spaces to any artist with vision and talent. I adore the democratic nature of this annual show, where anyone can submit their work for the possibility of seeing it selected to see it hang or stand among notable creations ranging from the famous, to the infamous.

The 166th open exhibition lives up to those aims, with paintings crowding walls to the extent that at times you’ll be crouching, and at others balancing on tiptoe. Inevitably, this leads to some being more difficult to view, and more than once, I was asked by older gallery visitors to read out the small notices revealing artist and exhibit name.

Offerings (Earth) by Jenny Leigh_Photo by James Beck

Offerings (Earth) by Jenny Leigh_Photo by James Beck

Sculptures gathered in unexpected groupings too, from totem-esque found and assembled materials, to a transparent bin bag crammed with what resembled rubbish, amid elegant creations such as Yurim Gough’s Four Elements. Invited artists Jock Mcfadden RA and Carol Robertson provided anchor points, while the RWA’s own Academicians offered some familiarity.

The whimsical Octavia (below) by Caroline Taylor summoned up memories of myths – we sorely wanted to take her home, but found had already sold. Other favourites included Clouds, Fields, Moor by Andrew Hardwick and John Huggins’ Daydream, shown at the top of this post.

Octavia by Caroline Taylor

Octavia by Caroline Taylor

In other instances, it was human figures who enchanted us, in ceramics, bronze, ink and paint. A quizzically tilted head or the choice of a cabbage and pigeon as a crown was enough to elicit charmed giggles.

Altogether, despite the number of landscapes and abstracts on offer, this is a very congenial exhibition. The majority of the selected items brim with personality. Whether inspired by human, by animal or by a playful or startling blend of the two, the artworks on show given the impression of freezing momentarily as we enter, and continuing their conversational chatter after we depart.

Mule Head by Dorcas Casey_Photo by James Beck

Mule Head by Dorcas Casey_Photo by James Beck

The less characterful creations are, for the most part, equally enticing. I saw a child zone in immediately to this sculpture below, drawn by its bright colour and resemblance to a familiar toy.

RWA Open Exhibition 2018. Photo by James Beck

RWA Open Exhibition 2018. Photo by James Beck

To me that’s much of the magic of an assembled exhibition like this, where serious themes give way to the joy of originality. It invites us to remember the delight of creating – of letting our imaginations loose to rambunctiously play. This is an open exhibition that celebrates art in all its forms, and invites us to bring our own openness to the mix.

Until 25th November 2018 at the RWA, Bristol.

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A touch of English Magic

William Morris, enragedA little bit of gritty glamour is currently in residence at Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, as Turner Prize awarding-winning artist Jeremy Deller presents his critically acclaimed exhibition, English Magic.

The show, which includes additions especially commissioned in response to the museum’s permanent collection, offers a curious look at the country we live in, with juxtaposed imagery, surreal responses to our tax angst, and some exquisitely political murals.

Set in galleries over two floors, part one invites you to sit for a few moments on a bench repurposed from a crushed Range Rover and watch a film intersecting scenes of owls and other birds of prey with scenes of vehicles being destroyed, set to a soundtrack of a steel band playing. Glance up and you’ll notice illuminated examples from the museum’s taxidermy collection gazing thoughtfully as though you may well be the next titbit on the menu.

Archive photography of Ziggy Stardust on tour is interspersed with scenes of the violence of workers’ strikes, troubles in Ireland and more.

I want to be invisible

Upstairs, the past is superimposed by present and future – with truths matches to surreal but infinitely possible imaginings. Vast murals take precedence – wry, simmering works that seem to demand “had you noticed…?” Directly inside gallery five, painted buildings billow with flame-edge smoke – a portrayal of what could happen if civil unrest over tax evasion resulted in rioting in St Helier, Jersey: “The event quickly gets out of hand; protesters overwhelm the local police force and burn the town to the ground.”

A Good Day For Cyclists

At the far end of the space, a gigantic mural titled A Good Day For Cyclists shows a hen harrier carrying off a Range Rover, providing a visual protest against persecution of the powerful against the seemingly powerless.

I won’t list all the exhibits here (though the drawings by prisoners, “many of which are former soldiers” merit a mention), so will leave you with my favourite, shown at the top of this post. The mural shows the rise of Victorian artist and socialist William Morris from the waters of Venice to restore the view he so loved – colossus, visionary and champion of the common, everyday people – not all that unlike Jeremy Deller.

English Magic is at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery until 21st September 2014. Find details here.