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The Power of the Sea Exhibition at the RWA Bristol Until 6 July 2014.

April 18, 2014


Image: Jo Millet Overflow. Two screen video and sound installation 2014

The The Power of the Sea exhibition at the RWA is quite simply stunning. Moving between artists’ interpretations of the sea spanning more than two hundred years it evokes the sea in all its guises. The only thing it lacks is that distinctive fishy-salty smell of small boat coves at low tide. Otherwise it is all there. Downstairs in the Cube Gallery you can sit and watch Jo Millett’s mesmerizing video and sound installation,Overflow,in which waves run in all directions spilling out onto the floor in front of you – you almost feel as if you could get your feet wet. Upstairs you can watch a small wave machine and depending on your height and viewpoint, if you are not a good sailor, prepare to feel seasick! One of the most moving works in the exhibition is Ama by Rona Lee. Braille readings in English translation from Luce Irigaray’s Amant Marine: De Friedrich Nietzsche are read by a blind performer and interspersed with footage from deep under the sea. Despite the weightiness of Irigaray’s topic, the language is direct and poetic, the black-robed reader, against a stark backdrop is simple, yet powerful and poignant.

However it is not all film and video, the vast majority of the work is two-dimensional and wall based. The exhibition covers artists, from 1790 to the present day, who have in some way used the sea as a starting point. The inclusion of historical works on loan was made possible by the installation of climate control in the side galleries. Turner, Constable, Joan Eardley, Lanyon, Paul Nash and Paul Feiler are some of the big names in this section.

The organization of the historical works reveals the changes in style and subject matter that took place from 1791 to 1963. Pre world war one the works almost exclusively focus on waves, tumultuous seas, rescues and shipwrecks. The post 1920 works see a dramatic change away from realism to the more stylised paintings of Nash and Wadsworth leading to the almost completely abstract works of Lanyon and Feiler, which come back full circle to Turner. Paul Feiler’s Porthledden Blue is an early work made before his palette thinned and paled away from his early expressionism. Its luscious paint and vigorous execution open a wealth of possible narratives: spume spattered sea wrack, reflected racing skies and the tarred woods and blinded windows of Cornish fishermens’ huts. Turner’s abstraction is evident in the dramatic swirling skies and seas of Rough Sea with Wreckage.

paul Feiller 

Image: Paul Feiler Porthledden Blue. Oil on canvas, 50 x 35 cm. c. 1963

There is much social and political history in the early paintings. Walter Langley’s heart rending Disaster! Scene in a Cornish Fishing Village depicts the women of a fishing village as they watch their menfolk drowning, just out of reach beyond the sea wall. Major shipwrecks are recorded or the wreckers themselves, as they plunder a foundered ship leaving its sailors for dead. Three Constable sketches, in particular Seascape study: boat and stormy sky have that wonderful freedom and freshness that was often lost in his finished, highly polished canvases. The side galleries containing the earlier work have a reverential museum feel to them, partly because of the closed doors and lower light necessary to protect these valuable and more fragile works.


Image: John Constable Seascape study: boat and stormy sky. Oil on paper laid on board, 15.5 x 18.5 cm. c. 1824-8

The main gallery, full of dazzling light and space, shows the contemporary work to advantage. Apart from Len Tabner, 1987, Terry Setch 1990-91 and Susan Derges 1998 it contains works made exclusively after 2000. It takes marine art out of the bucket and spade mentality and places it firmly in the twenty-first century as part of an ongoing investigation of topical concerns, stressing the vital importance of working with the sea rather than fighting it.


Image: Anne Lydiat Underway. Archival gel ink pen on watercolour paper. 29 x 21 cm. 2013

Underway, Anne Lydiat’sdelicate drawings made remotely by a pen suspended over paper on a ship, records the movement of the sea in exquisite layers of thread-thin spikes of ink. In contrast Marian Leven’s bold blocks of watercolour, From the shore are land-based. They explore the movement and fluidity of their watery ‘medium’ in both senses of the word. From these small works it is a huge leap to the majestic canvases of Maggi Hambling, Kurt Jackson, Janette Kerr and Michael Porter. In Kerr’s Holding my Breath II the tumbling water and crashing waves seem complicit in the painting of their fury.

Marian Levan Image 1 From the Shore

Image: Marian Leven From the shore. Watercolour, 9 x 29 cm. 2013


Image: Janette Kerr Holding my Breath II. Oil on canvas, 180 x 210 cm. 2013

There is a sense of inviting the sea to depict itself. Susan Derges Shoreline 5 October was made by immersing photosensitive paper in the sea at night so that when it was later developed in the darkroom the sweeping waves and drifting sand had photographed themselves. The pillow-soft blacks of etching and aquatint are perfect vehicles for dramatic seas. Storm tossed birds seem to have been hurled into the maelstrom of light and darkness in Norman Ackroyd’s etching, Inishboffin Sound and James Beale’s scratched and darkly worked Storm at Coast captures the more frightening aspects of the sea. There are calmer waters to be explored. Occupying nearly ten square metres of floor space, Annie Cattrell’s rippling waves of vacuum formed acrylic, Currents, flickers with an unearthly, undulating light. Photographs too by Andrew Friend and Thomas Joshua Cooper show a calmer but deceptively benign sea.

Inishbofin Sound

Image: Norman Ackroyd Inishboffin Sound. Etching 18 x 26.5 cm.  2005

Annie Cattrell Image 2 Currents

 Annie Cattrell Image 3 Currents

Image: Annie Cattrell Currents. Vacuum formed acrylic, 245 x 245 x 200 cm. 2006

There are multiple voices and viewpoints in this exhibition. There are works in which the artists speak for the sea and others in which the sea speaks for itself. Derges, Lydiat and Millett’s works come into this latter category, and Jackson, Maclean and Setch seem to straddle both camps. Will Maclean’s boxed constructions in which he deconstructs and then reconstructs found objects are elegant and quiet. Redolent of the sights and sounds and smells of beachcombing under a low winter sun they nevertheless go far beyond a simplistic interpretation. Less the fury of a raging beast, rather they are musings on the deeps and soundings of the mysteries, rich narratives and mythologies of his subject. Terry Setch’s huge three-paneled work, Above and below the tide, is so heavily encrusted that it stands proud of the wall by several inches. Concealed figures and rusty forms lurk beneath stretched and torn latex casting the viewer onto empty tide-washed beaches strewn with the water-smoothed detritus of abandoned rubbish.


Image: Will Maclean Navigator’s Box/Stormfinder. Found objects wood and bone, 13 x 38 x 64 cm. 2013

Terry Setch Image copy

Image: Terry Setch Above and below the tide. Mixed media on polystyrene, each panel 300 x 120 cm. 1990-91

For many of these Contemporary artists it is still the drama of the sea that captivates them, its power, unpredictability and its capacity for destruction. In this exhibition, against the solid historical background of marine art the contemporary artists relationship with the sea is informed by politics, concerns for the environment and the challenges of global warming. Artwork which pleads for the need to accommodate these vast tracts of water, to work with them rather than fight them. There is an anguished cry for halting the thoughtless use of the sea as a cesspit for plastics and other waste, behaviour which causes havoc in marine environment and to the sea birds that haunt this watery waste tip. But what this exhibition also communicates is the enduring romance of the sea, its mystery and its power and its continuing role as a place of contemplation, solace and extreme beauty.

Kurt Jackson Image copy

Image: Kurt Jackson An Mor Kernewek. Mixed media and collage on linen, 200 x 325 cm. 2003


The Power of the Sea: Making waves in British Art 1790 – 2014.

Exhibition curated by Janette Kerr PRWA and Christiana Payne.

Royal West of England Academy, Bristol, 5 April – 6 July 2014.


The accompanying catalogue: THE POWER OF THE SEA Making Waves in British Art 1790-2014 edited by Janette Kerr and Christiana Payne. Sansom £25 pp159 is reviewed by Fiona Robinson in [Evolver] Issue 81 May/June 2014.


© Fiona Robinson 2014






























One Comment leave one →
  1. April 23, 2014 10:12 am

    Reblogged this on RWA: Behind the scenes and commented:
    Lovely piece on The Power of the Sea. Thank you to Fiona Robinson

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