Review: RBSA Anniversary Exhibition

Review of the RBSA Anniversary Exhibition by art writer Bethany Wood. 
The RBSA Anniversary Exhibition is on display until 5 September.

Lager Boys, Normal Neason, 1997 – RBSA Collection

The RBSA is celebrating the relocation of the RBSA Gallery from New Street to the Jewellery Quarter, 20 years ago, with an exhibition that brings together RBSA Collection acquisitions and artwork by current RBSA Members and Associates.. The exhibition is on display both in the gallery and online until 5th September. Norman Neason’s Lager Boys, depicts a moment we can finally experience and enjoy again. As the world slowly starts to open back up, we can try to find those scraps of normality that we have left and piece them together. Whether that’s going to the pub or returning to the galleries, it’s that breath of fresh air we’ve all been waiting for. 

Abigail in Berlin, Frederick Jones ARBSA

Frederick Jones has captured a candid, private moment in their lithograph, Abigail in Berlin. The dynamic lines and dramatic lighting only exaggerate the feeling that we are watching a moment that we’re not privy to. This piece feels like it is in motion, that if you were to stare long enough that Abigail would start to move. But this brief moment that we are seeing is exactly that. It’s brief. It’s a few seconds in time that would usually disappear, but Jones has encased this memory for us all to see. That alone makes it feel even more precious and personal. 

Unexpected Life on Mercury, Kathryn Sawbridge NWA

A striking and complex digital collage, Unexpected Life on Mercury by Kathryn Sawbridge pulls together all the difficulties and strangeness of modern life. If you think back to how past generations imagined the future, we’re a far cry from these utopias. Sawbridge’s work touches on that disconnect between the past and the future, and where we lie in between. Will we progress to colonising another planet? Or are we simply not yet advanced enough for such a leap? The uncanny ‘British-ness’ of the images Sawbridge uses pulls at another contrast. That war-time indoctrination of the stiff upper lip, the ‘keep calm and carry on’ rhetoric surely can’t apply if we escape to a new civilisation. Or perhaps in this disconnected snapshot, humans have been forced into a new world. Either way, Sawbridge’s collage marries many opposing themes, but particularly the feeling of familiarity and the daunting unknown. Between the bright colours, Sawbridge captures both pessimism and optimism in this futuristic collage, leaving us questioning where will future generations end up? 

Grand Entrance, Natalie Seymour NWA

Natalie Seymour has two exquisitely intricate pieces in this exhibition. Despite all the wreckage, rubble, and rotting plaster, the building in Grand Entrance still holds the grandeur of its past. The translucent images of decay from this abandoned place add a ghostly, daunting feel to this piece. It makes us wonder what memories these walls hold, and begs the question that if these walls disappear, do the memories fade with them? The image is as poetic as it is haunting.  

Rebuild 2, Natalie Seymour NWA

There’s a similar feeling evoked in Rebuild 2 as well. The superimposed photograph of what seems to be an abandoned factory, now looks like a dollhouse (albeit a creepy one you’d expect to see in a horror film). Adding to that ghostly, uncanny feeling is the fact that this dollhouse is inside its own walls. This deteriorating building is trapped inside one of its derelict rooms through Seymour’s clever use of double-exposure. Both artworks capture similar emotions, and yet there is one polarising theme between them. Grand Entrance centres on the lavish architecture of a time gone by, a place enjoyed by those with disposable income, perhaps quite a lot of it. Whereas Rebuild 2 shows us the decay from the other side of the population, this factory or hospital trapped within itself illustrates the more underappreciated communities that hold up our society. When these places fade and the walls crumble to nothing, which memories will survive? Will we remember the luxurious experiences, or the hard-working and heart-breaking moments? 

Outcast, R J Emerson – RBSA Collection

The last piece I want to talk about is R J Emerson’s Outcast, an almost biblical-looking artwork from the RBSA archives. The figures in this piece echoes the moment that Lilith is banished from the garden of Eden. I say Lilith, because if it were Eve, we would expect to see Adam too. It has been theorised that the first women ‘eating the fruit’ produced by Lucifer is a metaphor for sex, which would explain the baby in Emerson’s work. The dramatic lines and bold gestures lean towards the theatrical here, and it is easy to imagine this as a snapshot from some epic tale. Another interpretation that could be taken from Outcast is that it looks like it belongs in a deck of tarot cards. It is not inherently clear which card the artwork would belong to, and perhaps that is exactly the purpose; this is a forgotten card. A prophetical image deliberately excluded, an outcast of its own. Either way, this remarkable and forthright piece by Emerson has such a strong and commanding presence, that the intimidating god-like figure overshadows the other character. 

I fully recommend going to see these artworks, and the huge number of other pieces, at the gallery whilst you can. It is exciting and refreshing now that the RBSA is open again but do remember to adhere to social distancing and wear a face covering when inside. For those staying at home, the full exhibition is available online, and most of the artworks are for sale too. 

By Bethany Wood

Bethany’s Blog
Twitter: @bethanyvwood

About Us

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.

The RBSA runs an exhibition venue, the RBSA Gallery, in Birmingham’s historic Jewellery Quarter, a short walk from the city centre.

The gallery is open from 10.30am – 5pm on Tuesday – Saturday. Admission is free.

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