Sunday, 3 July 2011

summer at the rwa - and a miscalculation

We recently went (on the recommendation of a friend ) to the exhibition of Robert Lenkiewicz’s work at the Royal West of England Academy (RWA). We were very impressed by the work (and life) of this art world “outsider” with its big themes, such as mental handicap and vagrancy; and despite my initial misgivings I was very moved by the display of an embalmed body as part of the exhibition.
Before that it had probably been more than a year since I was last at the RWA. It seems that it is re-inventing itself somewhat, with a new cafe and refurbishment plans to improve storage of the collection amongst other things. The list of exhibitions for the summer season – Mary Fedden, Lisa Milroy, Elisabeth Frink, Damien Hirst, Jack Vettriano – looked inviting. Mostly quite safe, tried and tested stuff - apart from the Vettriano, which has caused something of a kerfuffle in RWA circles and led to the president resigning. Vettriano has long been the focus of a “critics-versus-the-people” stand-off and he is used to the fuss. In an interview on the local news last week he expressed himself delighted to be showing in a large public gallery and remarked that all the critical vilification just brings people in to see for themselves.

Indeed. I went along on Friday to see what all the fuss is about. I went with a (relatively) open mind having only ever seen reproductions of JV’s work. I have to say that on this occasion I am on the side of the critics. His work is technically fine and he certainly has his own style, but somehow it fails to inspire. What hadn’t been trumpeted in the press is that it’s a tandem show, pairing his paintings with the ballroom dance photographs of Jeanette Jones. I found her black and white images far more entrancing and evocative than the paintings.

I also loved the Lisa Milroy exhibition based on Japanese woodblock engraving and particularly liked her witty and affectionate portrayal of geishas. The small Frink exhibition and the “Up from the Country” two-hander from Neil Murison and Peter Murphy were also worth seeing as is Damien Hirst’s vast statue of Charity.

However, the work that I really wanted to see – Mary Fedden’s Celebration – was nowhere to be found! It turned out that I managed to arrive on one of the few days it wasn’t on show because it’s being moved from the main gallery where JV is now showing to the side gallery where “Up from the Country” is just finishing. How confusing. Oh well, I’ll just have to go again, and as I’m hoping that our friend Maggie will be visiting in August for some arty play that will be the perfect opportunity.

While I was there I visited the new cafe (of course!) which has been opened by local cafe/deli people Papadeli. I only had a cup of coffee, but the food all looked delicious and the room (reclaimed from one of the small ground floor gallery spaces) was calm and cool. As I stood at the service counter waiting for my drink, however, I couldn’t escape from the knowledge that I was standing where the ladies loos used to be! I can understand why they’ve kept the old crazed cream ceramic tiles; it fits the shabby-chic, old school feel, but unfortunately one can still clearly see where basins and hand-dryers have been removed from the walls and patched with brownish filler. Not the best bit of making good I’ve ever seen.

Still that’s an amused observation rather than a gripe. I enjoyed my visit and combined it with a fruitful, but sad, visit to Habitat’s closing down sale.


  1. what a marvellous exhibition review! fascinating about the JV stuff. What a kefuffle indeed! I too, have only seen reproductions of his work, but I think I agree with your 'uninspiring' verdict!

  2. What a shame you missed the Mary Fedden - though it's on until the end of August. I'm sure you won't be disappointed as they are very beautiful, just a pity that the show is so small. Like you I turned up on the day they were switching shows around, but was able to return the following week. I have to say I loath Vettriano, his work is totally uninspiring, as you so rightly say, but also, if you look closely, it's all wrong, the limbs never occupy the spaces they are given, nothing works spatially, it's all a sham. I quite warmed to Vettriano when I saw him interviewed, just feel he could do with a few lessons.