The 138th Annual Exhibition was once more installed on the 5th floor of the Ulster Museum. The installation is always a problem, given the number of exhibits. While the installation is not a riotous visual assault, the quantity evokes fatigue that traps – in the words of John Updike – a certain breathing space for spirit.
The current president Betty Brown writes in the catalogue: “From an online submission of 1604 works, our Selection Committee of five, work to whittle this down to what in their professional opinion are the top 425 artworks to be pre-selected. These are then submitted to our office on Hand-in Day…..The chosen works then face a second selection and physical presence comes into play.” (catalogue p 6)
There are two limits: one is the rule that every Academy Member has right to exhibit two works of art, the other is the size of the exhibition space. This time there were 388 exhibits.
It is a kind of “Salon” for the members of RUA with generous invitations to outsiders, namely young generation and chosen high achievers, e.g. Cathy Wilkes and Abigail O’Brien as President of the Royal Hibernian.
Alongside the display there was a rich program of events: e.g. Meet the Artist, Sources and Inspirations, Art of curating … For the first time the exhibition will travel – to Enniskillen.
Ready for the public. However, raising the issue of the “refused” and of limits of the space available. Perhaps – a comprehensive exhibition of all work submitted in several editions installed in different places deserves to be considered?
All installations can then circulate Banbridge…Portadown…Newtownards…Downpatrick etc etc… well any suitable place on offer. After all many people live outside Belfast and in a not easy distance from the Ulster Museum. It is desirable to make visual art accessible where it is not. Also – refusing to exhibit a work of art of a living working artist is not desirable either. Every selection is likely to mistake something unfamiliar for bad. I am enthusiastic about the work RUA has done so far – but the constraints they face are neither essential nor desirable condition for their work.
The sample of the exhibits has been made available to me by Keith Wilson in photographic documentation by Paul Marshall. They are equivalent witnesses of what appeared – not of my own value judgement. Chris Wilson’s fusion of painting and sculpture is crowned with tiny houses, a motif from his very distant degree show. The blue, which appeared much later in his landscapes, sparkled in the artificial light; sorry, the image does not show it. Some art is not photogenic.
This superb, highly skilled hyper-realistic painting, transcends the mode of representation by becoming beguilingly hypnotic.
It reminds me of surrealism, and a statement by Leonora Carrington:
…we have art because there are things unsayable”
Not many exhibits matched it.
Indeed, there are submissions which made me cringe – as they screamed Me,Me,Me… rather than anything more substantially valuable. Male/female bravado has unbeatable impact on memory, but its visual noise forbids any aporia of giving. Excess does not equal intensity. They all seek the same: to address a viewer while not compromising their own priorities, which appears healthy until the schematic calculation stops you believing in those priorities. On one hand, it is expected that an artist matches her or his output with his sincere views about life, art and beliefs, on the other we have this suspect hierarchy of the best, good and bad art. I feel sorry for those three adjectives, they have no single firm ground – they depend on the sort of “power” game between aesthetic judgements. It is impossible to use them without naïve enthusiasm or cold calculation. Both useless in relation to aesthetic experience and its fluidity.
Aesthetic experience is a self-directed oscillation between what is made visible and expectation of what should be made visible. And how. And why. The value of visual art is also in what happens when it subverts what you know. Art at times is nurtured by the makers as a tool not only to provoke attention but to evoke critical powers in the way people think. Radical honesty coupled with humour serves well at times.
The flash of the visual wit slips into the social, political engagement of the title. Even without the words, it focuses the attention on absences, on unfinished process of understanding the rewards and obstacles of a change.
A membership based exhibition depends on respectable support for “tolerance of differences” in philosophy, aesthetics and among the artists, even if some artists systematically reject what is different to their preferred art practice. Just recall W. Kandinsky’s attack on figurative painting in Munich when he supported his choice of abstraction by thinking about spirituality in art.
Perhaps more helpful for group exhibitions like this one is still Charles Baudelaire, his theory of correspondences.
Wilson’s colour scheme corresponds to an older European canon, more French (Barbizon) than Italian or Dutch, while it and the composition come from walked observation and drawing the “seen”. The marks, be it by brush or crayon, harmonise effortlessly with shapes and space, in a melodic partnering of light and shadow.
The access to collections in museums, galleries and online perhaps inspire visits to a historical precedent, older style, or re-working of a composition e.g. T. Gericault in one case and pointillist light in another. Even if it is a tribute to the invention of the technique, it still matters that another artist makes it alive again. It is the matter of matching the how to the what.
Its sensual authenticity is sincere, not staged, believable and inviting.
There are quite a number of atmospheric landscapes and trees displayed – I hope as a sign of our new priority vis a vis climate change – presenting various takes on narrative, mimetic approach.
The poles supporting the blossoming crown signal humanity as caring for nature. Or manipulation?
The choice is with the viewer.
Visual art appears the last vestige defining the grip of manipulation of attention, in somewhat playful manner. There is a radical honesty about staging composition as a critique of manipulation of thinking. The sweet touch of surrealism become its own truth: they both dance.
There is never too much of observation – the trinity of eye, mind and hand, hailed by Leonardo as a condition for being an artist still holds its power.
While majority of exhibits were two-dimensional, some smaller sculpture, assemblage and relief made it in.
These two are visually noisy assemblages of layered shapes with intense stimulation of the difference between the wood and bronze. Each presents “own truth” about anxiety of being now and here while displaying remarkable attention to the medium. Actually- that faithfulness to the medium could be perceived in all exhibits, whether they were grounded in scenic elements, historical valence or anthropocene’s impacts. In summing up: an overall impact of this exhibition on me was the tension about the fragility of human condition gazed at through imagination and observation.
This essay is only a fragment of my experience with this exhibition – even so it is too long already!
The catalogue entries do not give dates
The images courtesy of P Marshall, unless otherwise indicated.
Sincere thanks to Keith Wilson for emailing the jpegs to me.
White Cottage 16 Jan 2020
In her kind reply to an incorrect point in my essay above, the President of RUA included this correction:
“…a smaller collection of Members work travelled to Enniskillen and was exhibited at Waterways Ireland during the month of February 2019. Although an exiting venture which was well attended and well received, the associated costs make similar forays into far flung venues prohibitive.”