Tuesday, 22 August 2017

The Unbelievable Weightiness of Air

Helen Jones 'Formation' 2016 Black pigment & pastel on tracing paper.
The puns pretty much write themselves, it’s a gas, walking on air, breath of fresh air, lofty ambitions; whatever the opinion on the current exhibition about Air at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol, one thing you won’t hopefully be calling it is a load of hot air. Celebrating everything aerological from the air we breathe to clouds, the wind and sky that has inspired countless poets, artists, philosophers, writers and musicians. It is the space where hearts have been won, battles have been fought, our relationship to the ground mapped and explored, music and sound reverberates, meteorological events unfold and questions on the very nature of existence asked. Therefore it is not to be taken lightly! It is no coincidence that in the central weeks of this exhibition opening that it should coincide with the Bristol Balloon Fiesta (and for fans of that there are several hot-air balloon works in the show)!

Freya Gabie 'Wind Break' 2014 Shredded plastic and glass.
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. 

Joseph Wright of Derby 1768 'An Experiement on a Bird in the Air Pump'*
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’ [1920] 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.  
Ernest Townsend 1920 'Balloons'
 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
There are a couple of works that feel have been forced into the exhibition, Janette Kerr has a seascape, arctic-based painting whose subject matter dominated by mostly sea and thick layering of paint feels too heavy in the context of this show as does a series of heavy hand-made paper woodcuts by Peter Ford. In contrast the Peter Randall-Page, marble piece titled ‘Solid Air III’ is literally heavy but has been made with a lightness of touch and the surface of the marble has a sky-like pattern to it that counterbalances its otherwise weightiness. Mariele Neudecker has a body of work in the exhibition from ‘The Air Itself is one Vast Library’ series. A film, ‘The Land of the Dead’ offers a hot-air balloon perspective looking downwards toward the land in Egypt. The work is projected horizontally, its aerial views of roads, farmland and burial sites capture the shapes and surfaces of our relationship with land making it visually one of the more intriguing works exhibited. It puts the viewer into a state of uneasy artificial weightlessness reminiscent (as observed my discerning exhibition accomplice) of Simon Faithfull’s ‘30km’ (2003) film of a camera attached to a weather balloon as it spirals upwards giving a dizzyingly aerial perspective of the land.

Alex Wood 'Discovery'
Bringing a lighter tone to the show is Berndnaut Smilde’s photograph of a cloud which was atmospherically created to briefly occupy the central hallway of the RWA and is a fleeting moment in time that reminds us of the impermanence and ever changing state of air and climate. Alex Wood’s maquette-style part ready-made models or prototypes of exploratory aeronautical vessels are playful and imaginative bringing a sense of uplifting joy to what otherwise at times feels a rather brooding exhibition. I think a bit more humour would not have gone amiss, whilst referring to breathing there was no mention of any other bodily windy attributes (perhaps thankfully!?). Not entirely content with painted representations of balloons and bubbles I would have liked to see some more child-like air inspired wonders such as pinwheels, a whoopee-cushion, a desktop fan or a Martin Creed balloon room or Tom Friedman’s empty plinth, ‘Untitled (a curse)’ which perhaps challenged or poked-fun at the concept of air and nothingness in a much dryer way. Apart from a piece by Gabie there was also a missed opportunity for more environmental pieces or works which explored the theme of the destruction of our atmosphere and/or cotangents within it, there are several artists for example who draw into polluted surfaces or how bacteria in the air creates mould and led to discoveries such as penicillin. There is almost another whole exhibition which could have been created in addition; Air II!

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

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