168 Annual Open - Sculpture and Link Space Gallery Tour by Emilia Cross

168 Annual Open - Sculpture and Link Space Gallery Tour by Emilia Cross

We are delighted to say that the RWA is reopening from Saturday 17 April - Sunday 9 May 2021. Book tickets for the 168 Annual Open Exhibition HERE

While we have been closed all artworks have been available for purchase online HERE and you can still do this until 9 May

Together and Apart: The Year of 2020

The year 2020 has been a year like no other, to encapsulate even into a few sentences feels near impossible. Every emotion felt with a new intensity with missed opportunities, and many new ones too. It was a year in which we have experienced being very much been together and also, sadly, apart. When viewing the RWA’s 168th Open Annual exhibition I believe this theme, together and apart, resonates and threads so many of the artworks together, some conjure it with intent and others with more subtlety. This notion has always been relevant within the creation of art, expressing our experiences of all sorts of relationships with one another, but the previous year has focused our lens and I have found myself looking to this foregrounded theme more and more. With this in mind, I would like to contemplate a mixture of sculptures and paintings from this exhibition of 673 pieces that discuss the sentiment of being together and apart.

I would first like to turn our attention to these two wood carvings made by the Academician John Butler; ‘Alan and Annie’ (top) and ‘Self Portrait with my Parents’. Butler earned his academician title in 1997, and some of you may be familiar with his lime wood carvings, of which there are two more in this exhibition. Butler states ‘I find it rewarding to try and capture the dignity and absurdity of human life with a chisel’. From this comment alone we can assume that Butler spends much time contemplating and expressing all types of relationships, as we can see, for they play such a huge role in human life: something we have been so boldly reminded of this year. Through simple, skilful imagery Butler’s woodwork has the potential to explore complex emotions whilst being straightforwardly enjoyable to look at and embrace.

Coincidentally the title ‘Alan and Annie’, is immediately personal to me as it is also the names of my older sister and grandad, Annie and Alan. Butler carves a couple, standing with their arms linked, using one another for support. Their relationship status is unclear to us and could therefore be interpreted in whatever way you desire. For reasons I’ve just outlined, I see my grandad and my sister, walking on an ordinary day like any other. You might see a romantic couple, a pair of friends, or some neighbours, so many endless wonderful examples of who they could be. Perhaps the ‘ordinary’ that transpires from this sculpture, the jogging of your memory to think of all sorts of couples and your own relationships, is part of what makes it so special. Butler’s work feels honest, there no hidden meanings or tricks, they simply encourage you to look and reflect on your own relationships, to take them at face value and appreciate a moment of togetherness.

Next to ‘Alan and Annie’ is Butler’s ‘Self-Portrait with My Parents’. This piece references the cycle of roles shifting within a family, when the children begin to take care of the parents. This reversal in responsibility, for so many is done with great care, gratitude and love, but can conjure an unsettling set of feelings to navigate through, for both the parents and children, which Butler smoothly illuminates within this piece. Butler’s wood carvings could also connote a toy-like aesthetic which could references the confusion of this cycle taking hold, the adult still feeling so much like a child in the relationship, still playing with toys just like the sort he has created. With this year in mind, this innocent sculpture taps into the emotions of this process, not only of caring just for our parents, but feeling a responsibility to care for one another whoever they may be. The year 2020 has been a reminder of what a privilege it is to navigate ourselves through these roles, to have people to care for and look after, and for the cycle to continue so that become someone that is cared for too.

Gordon Aitcheson has been a full-time sculptor since 1993. Working mainly in bronze and stone, he often explores the female figure, meticulously carving out of these materials to create smooth curves. This piece here, titled ‘On the Brink’, is made from Portland stone: in which two figures are embracing one another in an intimate pose. What first grasps my attention with this sculpture is the delicacy and intricacy that emanate from it, not only of the details such as her wavy braided hair and the individual fingers, but of the way he is able to carve the feeling of touch; as if the figures melt into one another. Aitcheson states ‘sculpture for me is as much a tactile experience as a visual one, and the contrast of textures in my work is intended to draw the viewer in and also invite physical engagement’. I think that this holds particularly true for this piece. It invites us to wallow in remembering the feeling of touch. The title and the visual qualities of the work make me wonder whether the less detailed of the two figures is not actually there, but rather a figment of the woman’s imagination, making it a sculpture that it centred around the memory of touch rather than the touch itself. Being ‘on the brink’ of remembering exactly what this touch feels like and carving the Portland stone to seem so soft, transient and dream-like. At first glance we see a set of figures intimately tied together, but with a little deeper analysis, might very well actually be apart. The longing to hold and embrace our loved ones is something many of us have experienced this year, just like the women Aitcheson has carved out of stone, making this viewing experience all the more intense and personal.

Whilst 2020 made it more difficult to be together physically in the flesh, it has given us a new opportunity to experience the world outside our front doors in a totally new way, replenishing our appreciation of it; and being together in sharing that experience.

Anthony Skates primary focus is upon developing work that reflects the natural environments and the rich historical legacy of the UK. In more recent years he has concentrated on exploring the seasonal changes in the landscape of Wye Valley, which is where this piece, ‘Bluebells in Cuckoo Woods’ is derived from. With the ground to sky view, and the rich, individually detailed bluebells and tree stumps, the realism transports us to the environment. This specific moment in time, from when the bluebells bud to bloom, is particularly special, full of hope and a fresh warmth for new beginnings. This year in particular, these seasonal changes became something we could anchor ourselves to, allowing them to inform us that time was moving on, and with each day, and each walk, things were still growing and changing in a period when life felt it was on pause. The solace found in our outside world in this way is something we are all experiencing together, and whilst we are apart from one another, we are definitely together with nature. Skates captures our fascination with the outside world that has been replenished in the year 2020, an appreciation of these spaces revived.

This connection and appreciation with the outside world did not just shift the natural environments, but in our cityscapes too. Andrew Price’s, ‘London Bridge to Shooters Hill’ depicts an intricate acrylic recreation of the view that the title describes. Granting us a birds-eye view, the longer you look at this piece the more you can appreciate the accuracy and notice the details; each section of the cityscape has been given ample attention to conjure an almost photographic depiction. With this, it then quickly becomes apparent that there is not one single person shown within this scene, it almost looks like a stage setting without its actors or a model-play set. Whilst the thought of an empty London is a little melancholy, it is something we were all together in experiencing and gives us an opportunity to reconnect and explore our surroundings. As Price depicts; trains at a standstill, desolate streets and tree lined avenues, this urban playground can now be absorbed so we appreciate the architecture and the details that could have been easily missed before. Our replenished lenses force us to look around and absorb our environment with a new intensity in its emptiness. When I see this piece, I like to imagine how Price would have painted a view from Bristol, how different our city would have looked, and what details I may be given the opportunity to now notice.

I have chosen to end this tour with Nik Ramage’s sculpture titled ‘How are you?’. Ramage uses old pieces of scrap metal and objects that have drifted away from their utility to give them a new lease of life, and in this example here, have been used to remind us of the importance of this introductory conversational phrase. This year has been difficult for all of us in a variety of different ways but by having someone ask you a question as simple as this it can change everything. To me, this piece signifies hope, with a snow shovel at its front and the wheels beneath it, it says that no matter how, we can move forward and over whatever obstacle is placed in front of us. Its wobbly, bright and quirky letters not only bring our attention to its significance, but also tell us that when asking this question, it does not need to be in a perfect manner, ordered or exact, it just is something that needs to be said. If we have learnt anything from this year of being together and apart, and from the art we have just seen, it is that our relationships with one another and our surroundings are more important than almost anything else; and caring for it by asking ‘how are you?’ is a great place to start.

To browse all of the 168 Annual Open artworks online click here