|Helen Jones 'Formation' 2016 Black pigment & pastel on tracing paper.|
With such a wide breadth of concepts to cover this exhibition features over seventy works from the 1700s to the present. At its centre is Joseph Wright’s ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump’ painted in 1768 and on-loan from The National Gallery; it presents the otherwise darker but essential relationship the living has with air and scientists first attempts to understand this all too important invisible matter. It is a treat to see this painting in Bristol that demonstrates the Caravaggio-like use of lights and darks (chiaroscuro) so well, my only slight reservation is that the gallery spaces of the RWA are not dark enough to quite do the work justice. The ideas within the work do however set the thematic concept behind the show successfully, of how artists have attempted to depict this invisible element that cannot be seen but whose affects clearly can.
The galleries displaying older works feature some of what you may expect; the romantic cloud studies by Constable, weathered sunlit sky studies by Turner as well as paintings such as Millais’ ‘Bubbles’ in addition to some of the more unexpected but equally engaging paintings such as ‘Balloons’  by Ernest Townsend that cinematically composes the scene of an elderly man and woman blowing up balloons intended for children. No two depictions the same, this is perhaps best illustrated in the battle-fought ‘sky’ paintings during WW2 in which the almost abstract power and dynamism of Nevinson’s air view of mostly sky as a representation of the battle grounds of Britain is in good company with two watercolours by (commercial reproductions favourite) Eric Ravilious who takes a more earthy and grounded view to capturing his more gently stylised almost uncanny viewpoints of planes and blimps from the ground looking up. Other highlights, to which this show would not be complete without, include an air glider abstract painting from Peter Lanyon and a Lowry with his factory-lined cityscapes of chimneys pouring out smoke; in the context of this exhibition it is a reminder of the darker relationship and responsibility we have to our atmosphere and the effects of pollution.
The contemporary half of the exhibition has even more approaches to offer and visitors are greeted by a work which is amongst the only piece that actually demonstrates the protagonist of this show in action! The breeze that wafts through the central gallery space can delicately be noticed as it passes through colourful plastic fibres intentionally shredded. Deconstructed from a familiar beachside wind break, its wooden poles replaced by glass ones instead of shielding the wind, now allows it to pass through. This piece, titled ‘Wind Break’ also alluding to the pun of its now broken and delicate state, is the work of Freya Gabie and is a living contrast to her otherwise static but incredibly accomplished series of fine drawings of dust clouds and explosions. The ability to capture air through drawing or capture some of its ‘lightness’ is explored again in pigment drawings on tracing paper by Helen Jones and in photographic collages by Ian McKeever, whose images have an immensely drawn quality to them hovering somewhere between representing the sky or sea; an idea, interestingly for a book fan like me, McKeever states as having precipitated from reading Stanislaw Lem’s Sci-fi classic Solaris. Elsewhere Annie Cattrell, Mat Chivers and Jessica Lloyd-Jones use glass-blowing and 3D printing techniques to capture physical manifestations of breath whilst Neville Gabie bottles-up the breath of 1,111 people and asks them where they would like to have it released. One of the best is Dryden Goodwin’s animation of his son’s breathing created through an exquisite series of tiny pencil drawings.
|Eric Ravilious 1940 Barrage Balloon|
|Alex Wood 'Discovery'|
I do feel that sometimes the RWA doesn’t quite search as widely away from the South West, London or the academicians it is loyal to when curating shows but then maybe I shouldn’t expect it to? Nonetheless it is an ambitious exhibition to produce and there is a lot of work to be seen and comprised together in one location that makes it highly worthy of anyone’s time one breezy summer’s afternoon.
Air: Visualising the Invisible in British Art 1768-2017 on at Bristol’s RWA until September 3rd
Images marked with * sourced from: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/joseph-wright-of-derby-an-experiment-on-a-bird-in-the-air-pump; https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/balloons-61093