Saturday, 18 November 2017

Sour Grape Juice (Best Served Cold)

A while ago back in the summer, I decided to enter three prints for the Royal West of England Academy's open exhibition. I realise this might look as if I only submit work to the exhibitions of bodies with "royal" in their name, but it is simply that the RWA is based in Bristol, and their gallery is a nice space in which to show work.

I had quite a number of candidate pictures so, having done the hard work of making a shortlist, I decided to try an experiment: I solicited the views of a select panel of notorious aesthetes as to which three of my six shortlisted choices they would choose. The results were interesting, in that they more or less coincided with my own top three choices. Make of that what you like. I'm inclined to think that all it demonstrates is that people whose judgement you trust tend to think the same way as you. It's "confirmation bias", or some such phenomenon.

Most interesting of all, though, 100% of cats who expressed an opinion (which was all of them) liked this image, which I titled "Southampton Water", and which was my own no-brainer candidate:

The signs were good. However, in the end, although two of the three (including "Southampton Water") made it into the final round of judgement, neither made it onto the wall. Disappointing, obviously, but these things are always a bit of a lottery. I bear the judges no ill-will, though if bad things have subsequently happened to them, their families, their pets, and their homes, then they only have themselves to blame.

As it happens, I am currently in Bristol for a few days, so I decided to drop by the RWA and take a look at the exhibition, if only to sneer at the work that did make it onto the gallery walls. Well, it turns out I didn't have to try very hard: although there is some excellent and interesting work on show, the overall impression is rather mediocre, and there is quite a lot of work that is so awful you have to wonder what on earth the judges were thinking. This showing of "bad" work was a feature of a couple of rooms in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, too, so I have to conclude there's a thing going on here. As well as just a little touch of sour grapes on my part, of course. Like revenge, I discover, it is a dish best served cold.

Now, obviously, ever since modernism began, there has been a bit of a cult of the "naïve" painter. In reaction to the sterility of academic painting, painters came to distrust their own facility with draughtsmanship and composition – natural skills refined, technically, by the disciplines of the academy – and deliberately made use of awkward and "unrealistic" lines, shapes and colours, often mimicking the bold and expressive work of untrained folk and "outsider" artists. The paintings of Alfred Wallis, for example, exercised a huge influence on the professionally-trained sophisticates of the St. Ives school. As with Derain's Fauvist work that I saw recently at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, there was a certain shock value at the time, but these faux-naïve moves soon became as formulaic as academic realism itself. However, the work I'm seeing on the walls of these open exhibitions (the idea of an "open" exhibition being that anybody may submit work) is not naïve, faux-naïve, bold, or expressive, it is simply bad: poorly executed and poorly conceived work by people not remotely in command of their materials, with no sense of design, line, or colour, often merely illustrating some half-baked political idea, or transparently imitative of other work.

Now, you may say, that is merely your opinion, and of course you'd be right. The challenge to elitist opinions and canons is a significant feature of our times. And I think therein may lie the problem. Like those modernist painters who disavowed their own skill-set, I suspect the judges of open exhibitions (often artists in their own right) are increasingly reluctant to impose their own sophisticated frame of judgement on the work presented to them, and as a consequence give the nod to work that, if they had produced it themselves, would have gone straight in the bin. This is deeply patronising, I think, and also profoundly unfair and confusing to the Sunday painters whose cack-handed daubs are being given prominent gallery space.

Don't believe me? Here's just one example of many:

I mean, honestly! Am I being unfair? Or is it the judges who are being unfair to the painter of this work, by exposing it to the ridicule of everyone I witnessed standing in front of it? I suppose it's a valid question to ask, whether this is (a) the work of a person who can't paint, (b) the work of a person who is artfully pretending not to be able to paint, or (c) the work of someone who doesn't care that you think they can't paint, because they are making a point in a visual language that your bourgeois, stuck-in-the-past imagination can't grasp. Whichever answer you go for, it is merely your own opinion, of course.

It has to be said that some of the most egregious and/or dull work in the show was actually by artists with the letters RWA after their name, which surprised me. I was also very surprised by how little of the work on show has actually been sold with only a couple of weeks to go before it all finally comes down off the walls. Which, as you can imagine, gave me absolutely no pleasure at all.


amolitor said...

That is certainly an interesting choice there. The painter is at least competent, though. You don't throw down clouds like that without have done a bit of painting here and there. Honestly, it looks to me like a clumsy nod to Gauguin, only painting, um, something else.

Are those council flats or something? I don't recognize the "scene" which strikes me only as a construction site in which people are picnicking, which doesn't make much sense.

There is definitely a strong thread of "Trump (Merkel, May) is a neolbrul idiut hurr hurr" in capital-A Art these days which plays well to the judges.

Mike C. said...

Ah, the English seaside! It looks a bit like Brighton done from memory (which certainly has a seafront Ferris wheel), and those will be "seaview apartments", though rendered with the same clarity and subtlety as the car on the right.

The paint handling is simply bad, imho. If there's one thing I detest, it's oil or acrylic paints used as if they were coloured pencils.


amolitor said...

Ah! The seaside! The lack of sea foxed me. Also the yellowish rectangular blob upper right of the beach, just under the ferris wheel, looks like one of those portable offices they use on construction sites.

I like the way it's um playing with the dialectic. Thing.

Mike C. said...

I should have mentioned its title, "A Beach Before the Storm". It's true, without that hint, it might equally well be "Travellers on a Vacant Lot, with Portakabin".


Andrea said...

I see this happening quite often in art expositions I look at, here in Tuscany, the "need" to choose what is universally liked in this particular moment. In August, the local fine-arts public entity threw an appeal to artists for artworks destined to the next-to-be-opened new hospital wing. The response was quite huge, around 150 painters and photographers submitted their works to an academic body of critics. I sent 3 of my photos, 2 of which were judged "suitabily good", with other 36 artists and 78 works chosed for permanent display. I then went to the temporary display (1 month at the local modern art museum before their transfer to the hospital in Gen 2018), and I was pleasantly surprised finding a very strong and beautiful display of valid works, without the usual nod to "what is cool/trendy/avantgarde now"...

Mike C. said...


Well, Italians are famous for their good taste...

It's the British fad for the "suitably bad" which is annoying me. I blame Rose Wylie.