Norman Ackroyd RA: The Invited Artist for the RWA’s Drawn exhibition

Norman Ackroyd has four atmospheric prints displayed in the Royal West of England Academy’s current exhibition, ‘Drawn’. Ackroyd is this year’s Invited Artist for this biennial open submission exhibition.

You can find my article about his work and contribution to the exhibition on the RWA’s blog, here.

Norman Ackroyd detail in the RWA's Drawn exhibition


My 3rd review for Crafts magazine: Kate MccGwire at the RWA

Crafts Magazine, September/October 2015International artists Peter Randall-Page and Kate MccGwire have a wonderful joint exhibition at the Royal West of England Academy (RWA). I was very pleased to write a review of it for the Craft Council’s ‘Crafts’ magazine, issue September/October 2015.

This is now the third time that I have written about Kate MccGwire’s work (please see my interview with Kate on IdeasTap, and my blog post about writing for the Young Arnolfini zine); it is also my third review for ‘Crafts’ magazine.

My review in Crafts magazine

My review in Crafts magazine

Arboretum: The art of trees, the Arborealists and other artists

This review is published in Trebuchet Magazine

Shakespeare often used murky forests and prickly undergrowth in his plays as spaces where carnival and otherworldly events could be performed. These woods are liminal places, on the edge of civilisation, creative centres of critique. Similar to many of the Bard’s characters that take a trip to these woods, the viewer of this RWA exhibition is thrown into a magical world of organic transformation and thought-provoking negotiation. A bold sculpture comprised of several steel and bone white sycamores clearly sets the woodland scene. Its confidence and orderly appearance invites us in. Yet it is also quietly subversive by defying the conventional space of the art gallery and taking the inside outside. Its almost as if we can hear the crunch of leaves underfoot as we walk towards this sculpture, so powerful is its provocation of being a ‘real’ forest. This reminds us that trees, like all organic life, resist containment and frames. Fittingly, many of the paintings also included in this show are left raw and unframed, exposed to the elements – and artistic scrutiny.

Fiona Hingston’s  ‘Findings’

Fiona Hingston’s ‘Findings’

There is a curious mixture of styles, from the highly naturalistic, to the hyper-realistic, to those flirting with abstraction and those that are fully immersed within it. This conveys a clear sense of experimentation and exploration into which styles are suitable for contemporary portrayals of a long-examined subject. Fiona Hingston’s piece called ‘Findings’ display found natural objects from the floors of Biddlecomb Wood in the style of a Modernist grid. This rings strange with the natural materials and subject matter, making us question how we make sense of our surroundings.  Continue reading

David Inshaw’s Gromit, ‘Bushed’, at the RWA in Bristol

David Inshaw is an RWA Academician. He works predominately in oil paint, producing paintings of significant size. His work can be found in many places including the Bristol Art Gallery and Museum and the Tate Collection. He is the painter of The Badminton Game, 1972-3, which is one of his most famous pieces, and the beautiful but less well-known painting The River Bank (Ophelia), 1980.

The Gromit that Inshaw has designed is called ‘Bushed’ and – before the exhibition of all eighty Gromits – was situated just inside the entrance to the RWA. ‘Bushed’ is an apt name considering the Gromit is covered in dark green details of English foliage and leaves. This makes it feel like one of the subtler Gromit designs that can be seen around the city. The design also exemplifies much of Inshaw’s work that is immersed in Englishness and a love of the English countryside. His representation of trees and shrubs is striking and so stylised that it is instantly recognisable as his work. It therefore seems appropriate that this is the design for his Gromit sculpture.

Inshaw’s paintings focus on particular detailed aspects of nature, which he uses to reflect and explore human emotions. In various interviews he admits that Thomas Hardy’s novels and poems, and particularly the novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles, heavily influence him. In this novel natural landscapes are used as metaphors for elements of the human psyche. The landscape influences the mind as well as reflecting or helping to translate it. This is suggested in Inshaw’s own work partly because landscapes dominate each composition (and even overshadow the few figures also included in the paintings) and emit feelings of tranquillity, melancholy, nostalgia or order, as appropriate to the circumstantial production of the painting and its title.  Continue reading

Gromit Unleashed, RWA Bristol

Published in Trebuchet Magazine

From the 18th to 22nd September a sensational exhibition entitled ‘The Greatest Dog Show on Earth’, will sweep into Bristol.

Inside the building that used to be Habitat on Queens Road, eighty larger than life Gromit statues will be displayed. They have been designed and decorated by artists, designers or companies (such as Peter Blake, The Beano, Pixar, and even Nick Park himself).

These Gromits were originally installed at various iconic landmarks as well as in more hidden places across Bristol. This was in a similar vein to the apes that were put up round the city last summer; the pig sculptures that appeared in Bath several years ago; and the original cows which punctuated various European cities during the 90s.

The Gromits are clearly more fun and accessible than the apes (which even managed to look sinister and slightly threatening).

But why have the Gromits been such a success? There are many possibilities. Gromit is a character we can all immediately recognize regardless of our generation. He could arguably be called a British icon. Specifically, Gromit also has roots in Bristol, as he was created by Nick Park at the Bristol Aardman Animation Studios.

Unlike the apes, the Gromits appeared to reflect certain characteristics, landmarks or areas of Bristol through the way they have been decorated. For example, there was an Elvis Gromit (The King) near the Bristol Old Vic, and a pirate Gromit (Salty Sea Dog) at The Cascade Steps by the Harbourside. In Millennium Square, an astronout Gromit (called Astro Gromit) reflected the stark modern design of the space and the ‘At Bristol’ centre, which focuses on science.  Continue reading

Sophie Ryder: Monumental


Remember the huge sculptures of hares that sprang up in Bath a couple of years ago? Well, the artist, Sophie Ryder, is back with even more monumental pieces at Bristol’s RWA.

There is a distinct multiplicity to Sophie Ryder’s work, achieved through the use of different media and techniques to represent repeated forms, most notably hares. By including many mediums, attention is drawn to the processes used to make the work. This gives Ryder’s art a memory – a memory of what it has been and where it has come from. The emphasis on the artistic process is important because it adds to the prominent presence of the artist within the work; Ryder is not only the creator but also the subject matter of many pieces because the sculptures are modelled upon her own body. She is simultaneously inside and outside of the artwork, dualities are constantly at play.

The exhibition is full of ‘internal’ echoes in terms of forms, themes, processes and production. Some pieces are repeated with subtle differences while others experience huge changes in scale. The viewer feels enclosed in a world of repetition. The changes make us see each form in a slightly different way, an effect of defamiliarisation. Ryder plays with our senses, questioning the act of ‘seeing’ and thwarting expectations by constantly showing shapes anew. Indeed, there is always an element of surprise, pushed to the verge of discomfort most pertinently in her installation Temple to the 200 Rabbits.

Ryder’s work specifically asks us to question and think afresh about the form and structure of the female human body. Often, Ryder combines a female body with the head – or mask – of a hare, an uncertain identity that ignites the curiosity of the viewer. The anatomy is slightly distorted, an increased limb length or muscle bulk to convey the athletic power associated with hares. This destabilizes preconceptions about female physicality as weak and delicate. By both evoking and challenging different myths a contradictory sense of being is created, giving these sculptures a sense of fragility and liminality. Their vulnerability is increased because the figures are simultaneously exposed to the viewer’s curiosity and hidden from it by the (literal and metaphorical) masks they wear.

The hares appear introverted; they are either in dialogue with another body (often that of a dog), or concerned with – and enclosed within – their own forms. Many of them are caught in moments of embrace or dance. We see them caught up in their own inner worlds, encourageing the viewer to imagine these worlds and engage with the artwork creatively.
The prominence, and even interrogation, placed upon the body emphasizes the physicality of the Ryder’s work. Though it seems drenched in mythology (such as those surrounding hares, or the female body and fertility), reality and materiality are exposed too. This not only adds to the complexity of the pieces and their meanings, but also emphasizes the tension between being ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, where one is torn between two different states of being. In this way, the hare sculptures hint not only at the multiplicity of character but also to dichotomies of being and becoming, the real and theatrical, and authenticating and performing experience.

Sitting Lady Hare Wall Piece is the only sculpture in the exhibition in a fragmented form – all the other sculptures have rounded, finished appearances regardless of whether they depict a whole figure or just a limb or detail (such as Nell’s Eye orSleeping Feet). Sitting Lady Hare Wall Piece therefore conveys a sense of transience – of simultaneously being present and yet only in part. It looks like it could disintegrate at any moment.

The artworks in Monumental resonate powerfully with one another, constantly unsetting and refocusing the eye. There is much to take in and think about. Many connections are waiting to be made between not only the works themselves, but also between art and life, art and mythology, and the human and non-human (or even non-humane).

Mary Fedden and Sophie Ryder: a comparison of their work and styles in the two current RWA exhibitions

I volunteer at the RWA and during one of my shifts I was inspired to write about works of art from the gallery’s two current exhibitions. This article was published on the RWA blog:

The two latest exhibitions on show at the RWA (Sophie Ryder: Monumental and Picturing Arcadia, featuring Mary Fedden) suggest that both the artists Fedden and Ryder are concerned with depicting animal traits and the meeting of human beings with nature. Ryder uses female bodies morphing with hares, (her signature animal forms), to explore this meeting, while Fedden sets her interaction within a biblical-like scenario by focusing on a flock of sheep.

Boldness and simplicity are characteristics of much of Fedden’s work. Objects are painted almost using blocks of colour and minimal detail, suggesting the object’s essence or presence is conveyed rather than a demandingly ‘busy’ or intricate reproduction. Furthermore, the confident and almost minimalistic sculptural quality of the objects is partly created by the stark shading, and dramatic juxtaposition of light and dark areas. This pushes objects out into the picture plane and makes them appear tactile and rounded. Each object appears boldly in front of the viewer to be studied separately.

However, although the figure and sheep in Fedden’s painting ‘Goats in Gozo’ 1988 in the Picturing The Arcadia exhibition are boldly represented with dark shadows and contrasts, it is more the manipulation of perspective and emphasis on ‘flatness’ of style that gives them their boldness and simplicity. There is no depth or vanishing point in this painting, so the sheep appear to float around the canvas. They are almost objects of the imagination, hovering in a location somewhere between the viewer and the painting, and not adhering to normal rules of space and time. As they are not held together in a recognisable space this leads to a fragmentary tension between each of the figures presented.

These characteristics of boldness and simplicity are also found in Ryder’s sculptures and drawings. Ryder’s work presents parts of the human anatomy (such as feet, eyes and hands) as objects in their own right. In this way, they take on a life of their own and are – literally – unattached to any greater whole. The fact that they are recognisable, commonplace objects adds to their simplicity and boldness, as well as simultaneously creating surprise that they have been ‘disentangled’ from a larger figure (or limb) of which they are normally a part. Like with Fedden’s work, there is a sense of fragmentation created by this element of surprise. However, unlike in Fedden’s paintings, this also sets up a dialogue between presence and absence.

Similarly, the feeling of being in an imaginative world is keenly felt in all of Ryder’s work that draws upon mythology. The mythology surrounding hares and the female body is most clearly represented. Ideas of both power and vulnerability in regards to these myths are explored, creating an interesting dialogue. For example, both the hares and female figures convey a profound sense of tenderness. Hugging is a particularly prominent motif. This could suggest an uplifting power born out of being connected, loved and understood by each other. Indeed, each sculpture is acknowledged by another, so the feeling of tenderness resonates throughout the exhibition. However, hugging and huddling are repeatedly portrayed as similar, and even overlapping, actions in many of the works. This idea of huddling gives the work its vulnerable edge.

This juxtaposition of power with vulnerability helps to raise questions about the differences and similarities between woman and animal, myth and truth, and imagination and reality. This suggests the use of imagination – largely represented by the emphasis on mythology – has a more specific source, in Ryder’s work than in Fedden’s (where the imagination is used to create a more general sense of atmosphere and space).

Due to these multiple similarities and differences, it is exciting and thought provoking (if not unusual) to have work by these artists shown at the same time across the RWA’s two current exhibitions. Both artists are concerned with presenting objects in surprising and confident ways to help the viewer see them afresh and think about the figures depicted, as well as the potentials of the materials used.

‘Minotaur in a Mirror’ drawing by Sophie Ryder

This is another piece I wrote for the Young Arnolfini blog:

‘Minotaur in a Mirror’ is the largest pencil drawing on display in the RWA’s Monumental exhibition of Sophie Ryder’s work. It depicts a minotaur looking almost anxiously into a mirror, as though trying to ‘see’ himself clearly. The action of ‘seeing’ oneself, to negotiate one’s identity, as well as negotiating interactive spaces and relationships with ‘others’, are key motifs in Ryder’s work. This drawing however is the time she uses a mirror to represent these issues.

Mirrors feature in many feminist literatures, images and artworks in similar ways. For example the inclusion of mirrors is a typical feature of female photographers’ self-portraits in the 1920s. Isle Bing, Florence Henri and Lotte Jacobi come to mind. In terms of literature, ‘Jane Eyre’ by Charlotte Bronte, ‘The Well of Loneliness’ by Radclyffe Hall, and ‘The Bloody Chamber’ by Angela Carter all use mirror motifs to negotiate or form a sense of subjectivity and develop knowledge of the ‘self’.

The minotaur’s masculine body is physically powerful. The attention given to the shading round the muscles clearly shows this. Yet, the inclusion of the mirror and attention given to ‘seeing’ suggest the beast has a searching and vulnerable mind. He could almost be looking in the mirror in search of a companion to comfort himself. In this way, there is a discrepancy between the inside and outside, between inward and outward realities. The outside appears strong, but the inside is acutely vulnerable. This dichotomy is emphasized by the inclusion of the mirror in the composition. It makes the minotaur both the subject and the object, a self and an other. He is simultaneously in a passive and powerful position.

The mirror – and the way the minotaur is reflected in it – throws up many questions. Is he looking at his idealised self or a projection of his imagination? Is there even a mirror at all, or is it just a prominent metaphor for his ‘second’ or ‘sub’ conscious? Is the mirror a barrier? Does it mark a division between imagination (or illusion) and reality? Does it suggest the limits and containment of the mind? Is the mirror a stage onto which one can project and ‘re-see’ oneself? The minotaur is turned inwards, suggesting the scene is not theatrical but rather a dramatic projection inwards towards the self.

However the drawing does not depict a clear mirror image because the minotaur’s head is not reflected ‘accurately’ in the mirror. Additionally, both bodies are drawn and represented in the same way – such as using the same amount of shading, depth and solidity. Therefore, it is impossible to tell which minotaur is the reflection and which the ‘real’ body and contemplative audience.

The way the minotaur and the mirror interact is indeed puzzling. There is no central figure to look at. This disrupts the viewer’s gaze, which provokes in the viewer similar feelings of insecurity as the minotaur is shown to feel. We have no mastery over the world, the idea of reality, what we see. Ultimately, we have no mastery over ourselves, and so the self remains unknowable.

This drawing reminds us that we are made up of split, fragmentary selves – and the different parts cannot be accessed all at once. With this in mind, I feel the overarching question this drawing poses is which side of ourselves are we going to see and project today?