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Social Distancing

Review of “Social Distancing” and Royal Birmingham Society of Arts (RBSA) Friends Online Exhibition 2020 by art writer Bethany Wood.

Review: RBSA Friends Online Exhibition


Review of the RBSA Friends Online Exhibition by art writer Bethany Wood. (Original text on the RBSA Blog now offline: text below downloaded from the Wayback Machine)

The RBSA Friends Online Exhibition is on display until 5 September 2020.

Whilst the galleries and museums are closed, it’s important to continue to find ways to support our artists and creators. The RBSA Friends Online Exhibition features 140 artworks from 70 Friends of the RBSA, some taking inspiration from their experience during lockdown. I’ll be looking at the artworks that revolve around these universal lockdown experiences, as well as some that highlight the beauty of Birmingham that we can all enjoy now that restrictions are easing across the country. 

Social Distancing, David Byrne

The first piece I want to touch on is Social Distancing by David Byrne, a sobering and haunting digital print. It is a sight we have all grown accustomed to now, mask-wearing figures trying to go about their normal day. The blurring grey, dull tones are suggestive of two particularly important themes. The first, the uneasiness of it all; putting on your face mask when you leave your home is as important as remembering your keys and your phone, but that does not mean it has been easy.

Byrne’s work here really unearths the discomfort and anxiety we face as we are making this change to protect ourselves and everyone around us. The colours seem to merge and swirl together, an altogether nauseating experience is painted for us. The second is how the clouding tones suggest that there are more figures there than just the faces detailed for us. We all know that social distancing is impossible in many places, and that is a scary ordeal for many people. We can try our hardest to adjust to this new world, but in many ways, we are just not prepared. Byrne’s piece is a poignant and melancholy reminder of our efforts to adjust to a safer place. 

In the online exhibition, there are three striking screen-prints of well-known Birmingham landmarks by Jacqui Dodds. Birmingham has a history of being mocked, but the old jokes have given way to a new appreciation for the city’s vibrant communities, lively culture and hidden gems. Several artworks in this exhibition show-off the beauty of Birmingham, and Dodd’s screen prints do exactly that. The BT tower is a landmark that causes some contention, some love it, some not so much. It is a Brummie marmite. However, no matter your opinion on the tower, Dodds has certainly captured its good side in their print; it looks almost ghostly and ‘not of this world’.  

The second print is of the tremendous library, capturing the bold architecture of the building set against the industrial city. It certainly boasts of Birmingham’s vibrancy, a reminder we can appreciate during these difficult times. The third print by Dodds shows us an alternate view of the town hall; another majestic building that can often go under appreciated. This piece shows Birmingham’s industrial roots with grey hues, but also of the city’s ever-changing skyline. The alpha tower and the stark red of the crane shows us how Birmingham is always developing and moving forward whilst staying true to its beginnings. I think it is important to remember how strong Birmingham has been during lockdown, and these artworks truly show off appreciation for this city. 

Isolated Figure with Bird by John Rattigan is an extension of how many of us have felt during lockdown. It has been a lonely time, even if you weren’t isolating alone, we have all felt the impact in some way or another. I think the sombre figure in Rattigan’s watercolour is the perfect hyperbole for that feeling. Whether you’ve let the beard grow a bit much, messed up your sleep schedule, started talking to the birds outside your home, or switched to an exclusive diet of cheese and wine; this isolated figure in Rattigan’s work sums it all up in their expression. As dark as the piece may feel, it is rather refreshing to see those symptoms of isolation reflected and exaggerated to such an extent. The situation we are in is only temporary, and soon we can adjust back to our usual comforts. 

Another piece that highlights the beauty of Birmingham is Richard M Green’s ICC from Ikon. This charming watercolour feels as though it should be on a postcard and sent around the world. The detail and colours so accurately display the charismatic beauty of Brindley Place, a real hidden gem nestled in the heart of such a busy city. It is an area that feels like a small oasis, yet still bustling with shoppers and diners. The view appears to be taken from the glass ‘singing’ lift in the IKON gallery. It is a sight I will never tire of, and one that is always beautiful no matter the weather. Green has captured it wonderfully in this piece, and in a style that will remain timelessly enchanting. 

Lockdown, Rosalind Evans

The final piece I would like to mention is Lockdown by Rosalind Evans, a subdued oil painting of a face that really encapsulates every feeling that this lockdown has stirred in us. The colour work alone strikes a similar feeling as that of David Byrne’s piece, the muted colours and the brushstrokes resonate with that overwhelming uneasy feeling that lockdown has brought us. The facial expression that Evans has captured is an impressive sight to behold, the eyes hold so much worry and contemplation, as well as a sense of loneliness and fatigue. The darkened accents around the eyes again show how weary many of us are and how we all wish for life to go on as normal. Even the tightened jaw and pursed lips show us a person that is fed-up of how things are. 

I could stare at this face for hours, and I’m sure my expression would end up mirroring it as Evans’ painting evokes so many of these emotions that we have felt. A familiar feeling of isolation is also present in this painting, and not just because of the lone figure (as that would be far too presumptive) but again down to the intricate expression that Evans has captured. To me, it looks as though this face hasn’t had the luxury of company during lockdown, which is something many of us have taken for granted. 

These works encapsulate the experiences that we have endured in lockdown, as individuals and as a city, and those moments need to be held on to. There are many more pieces in this online display that don’t focus on this delicate subject and are available to view until 13 August 2020.

By Bethany Wood

Bethany’s Blog

Twitter: @bethanyvwood

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The Royal Birmingham Society of Artists (RBSA) is an artist-led charity which supports artists and promotes engagement with the visual arts through a range of exhibitions, events and workshops.

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