Bristol's Royal West of England Academy is one of only five royal academies of art in the country and the only one outside of London. Exhibiting inspiring work by high-profile and emerging talent alike within a stunning Grade II* listed building, the academy provides an inclusive programme of events throughout the year that art enthusiasts and novices can appreciate.
The highlight of its varied calendar is its Autumn Exhibition, now in its 160th year. This year over 2000 works were submitted by nearly 1000 artists, which were painstakingly whittled down to the final 541-work-strong exhibition by an expert panel of judges – no mean feat considering the level of talent and originality displayed by this year's entrants. As anyone is welcome to put forward their work, pieces by budding artists hang alongside those by big names, making for a fantastically varied exhibition featuring some of the most exciting art around today. RWA President, Janette Kerr, explains their selection process:
'We look for quality of execution and what impact the work has; for example, is it intriguing, striking or provocative? The Autumn Exhibition needs to be as representative of current art practice as possible.'
And representative it certainly is – at this mixed-discipline show you can expect an impressive array of paintings, drawings, photography and everything in between, all of which are available to purchase. The works are loosely arranged into themes – one wall features monochromatic, abstract pieces, while another features a beautiful set of watercolour landscapes. Walking around the gallery is a journey through art in its many forms; on the way you can take in everything from traditional portraits to weird and wonderful sculptures.
Indeed, some of the most arresting sculptures at the exhibition are by Winchester Art College graduate, Dorcas Casey. Using textiles, wood and found objects, Dorcas creates exquisite yet unsettling life-size animal figures. Designed to be tactile, familiar and yet strangely menacing, Dorcas’ dream-like creatures are at once magical and nightmarish and provide a brief window into the subconscious. Painter Lex Thomas (www.lexthomas.co.uk) also uses animals in unconventional ways, creating disconcerting works which feature startling hybrid creatures in a dystopian world. Lex knowingly uses artistic conventions from the 18th Century, placing these strange, anthropomorphised figures in reworked Romantic-period scenes in order to address our relationship with nature, science and modernity.
Amongst the paintings focused on landscapes is an atmospheric work by Bristol-based artist Andrew Hardwick. Somerset Coast translates the muted, earthy and textured landscape of the coast onto canvas through layering sand, earth and paint. Its firm sense of place evokes memories of Sunday walks – you can imagine the breeze in your hair and gritty sand under foot – while Andrew’s multi-layered approach brings to mind the coastline’s constantly evolving, ever-shifting environment. Another artist interested in atmospheric milieus is Daniel Ablitt (www.danielablittgallery.co.uk). He paints part-imagined, part-remembered landscapes, which are often inhabited by a solitary figure. His aptly named submission, Stillness, features an individual in a snowy scene and, like his other works, rouses a fairytale-like sense of mystery.
By contrast, portrait painter David Cobley’s (www.davidcobley.com) Here We All Are depicts a plethora of figures, forming a microcosm of human behaviour and interactions. The work features people engaging in activities ranging from the mundane to the extraordinary, encompassing the full range of human activity. The piece took more than two years to complete and is one of the most imposing works at the exhibition.
Other must-sees include penguin sculpture Going, Going, Gone by Neil R. Mason, life-drawing by Julia Adams, mixed-media work by Donna White and pieces by Ben Hughes, Lisa Wright and Anouk Mercier. Having such a sea of talent before you makes it hard to pick out a favourite, let alone choose one to take home. Thankfully this year the gallery is offering an art clinic, which is run by a number of local experts who are there to help you choose the best creation to match your taste and budget. With such striking contemporary artworks on offer – and plenty of advice on hand should you need it – now is a great time to make your first art investment or add another piece to your collection.
The exhibition runs until Sunday 30th December 2012. Further information can be found at www.rwa.org.uk.