Celebration of Organic Forms at RWA as Bristol is named Europe’s Green Capital

Our Ruby Walker reports on the Kate MccGwire and Peter Randall-Page exhibition at Royal West of England Academy, Bristol.

Finding inspiration from the same material, yet making work as different as chalk and cheese, Kate MccGwire and Peter Randall-Page have come together to put on a stunning show this year at the RWA. Exploring nature’s forms, recurring shapes and patterns, the two artists create a lovely contrast between hard and soft elements. There couldn’t be a better choice of artists to celebrate the RWA’s environmental theme in honour of Bristol’s year as European Green Capital.

Randall-Page’s work fills the first studio space in the minimalistic and thought-provoking way only he can. What takes the eye first upon entering the galley is the immense screen composed of sixty paper panels. A first in sheer scale for Randall-Page, he admits the work is the thing he is most excited about in this exhibition, as it is “freer” than much of his previous work.Image 1, Rorschach Screen“I often try to work in ways that on the one hand involve some sort of random element that I’m not in control of, but at the same time has some structured elements, a certain set of rules or something. With the screen, all the pieces of paper are mirror imaged. That’s one rule. Also, the line is meandering, but it always has to exit and enter the square piece of paper on the middle of each side. Between that I give myself freedom to be able to go wherever I want. There is a lot of inventiveness and playfulness I can introduce between those rules. I like that balance between controlled and uncontrolled. A built in element of chance.”

Smaller in scale, but no less intriguing are Randall-Page’s other ink on paper compositions Blood Tree (see below), Sap River V, and Source Seed I. They all have a very clear underlying link, instilling a sense of contemplative calm into the viewer. The almost trademark symmetry in the lines is immediately clear, and Randall-Page explains why this feature is so important to the message he is trying to communicate through his art.

Image 2, Blood Tree

“I have always been interested in natural phenomena, why certain patterns appear again and again in different contexts and how things fit together. Particularly the way in which when you look at the natural world it seems as if it’s in this dynamic tension between the tendency for spontaneous pattern formation and equally its tendency for random variation. Some kinds of shapes and symmetries seem to be more significant to us than others, and an example of that is bilateral symmetry; mirror image symmetry. I use that a lot because it makes a direct contact with the part of our brains that deals with expression and emotion.”

I certainly felt as I wandered the space that each work had something different to say. Wings, an installation of symmetrically shaped ceramic tiles, really had me captivated. The full installation is resonant of a dragonfly, but when you get up close and personal, each tile, while matching it’s counterpart had it’s own colouration that really makes you understand why Randall-Page himself is so fascinated by the variation in the fabric of a limited number of regulated natural patterns.

Image 3, Wings

Tucked away behind the screen like hidden gemstones are the works of Kate MccGwire. Growing up on the Norfolk Broads, MccGwire says she was “completely immersed in the landscape”, provoking an early fascination in natural forms. Now, working from her studio, a Dutch barge on the Thames, “the flow of water and surrounding bird life” are her main objects of inspiration. The monolithic Gyre takes up a large part of the gallery, provoking a stunned intake of breath from art enthusiasts as they round the screen. The serpentine form seems to burst through the walls of the RWA, making the cavernous room its home. It is very difficult to imagine the piece as manufactured, although the reality of the 4 years of planning, collecting and sculpting are all too real for MccGwire.

Image 4, Gyre

“It took me four years to collect the feathers for the big installation piece, made of 40,000 crow feathers. I first work out the scale of the piece, and then see how many feathers I’ll need per square metre; it’s not an option to do 3/4 of it and then find I don’t have enough feathers. It is quite mathematical at times. Everything has to be able to fit through my studio door which is 78 cm wide, so it all has it’s own considerations. The installation is bigger than that, and one of the pieces didn’t fit through the door, so I had to make it outside. It was in the winter so that was a bit of a challenge.”

If you are able to draw your eyes away from Gyre, the work which is undoubtedly the star of the show, Quiver, one of MccGwire’s more two-dimensional works, is where you want to look next. Unique in that the feathers are displayed edge-on, the work resembles an eye when viewed from far away, and the underbelly of a mushroom up-close. What is surprising is that the captivating work is made entirely from pigeon feathers. A material most people would normally overlook when looking to create a work of beauty; pigeons actually provided MccGwire with the first feathers she was inspired by.

Image 5, Quiver

“The pigeon feathers all started off because there’s a large industrial shed by my studio. I walk past it on a daily basis and there would be feathers all over the floor. Sometimes I would walk past and they would just be spiralling down; it was almost as if I could pick them out of the air as they were falling. It’s like they were saying ‘use me’. Inspiration is always around.”

The extraordinary exhibition is truly worth a visit as two of England’s most remarkable artists come together to create a gallery full of delight and wonder for people of all ages. The exhibition started on the 20th of June and ends this year on the 10th of September, so catch it while you still can!

For more information, visit www.rwa.org.uk