•  The Shining Guest.  Stewart Mitchell and Beth Carter 

  • Decision Time. Fiona Robinson mid curation at the RWA, Bristol

  •  Trapeze.  Eileen Cooper 

  •  Farewell Carousel I.  Beth Carter 

  •  Death at the Circus.  Beth Carter
     

     

  • Anna Andreyevna.  Sophie Lascelles. 

  • Monkey.  Fides Becker 

  •  Cat and Ball.  Abigail Lane. 

  • The Circus Horse Dances the Polka.  Simon Quadrat

  • Rev. Roly Bain Clown.  David Cobley
     

     

  • Performance.  Chris Hibbard
     

     

  • Clown.  Susie Hamilton.

  • Study for Fat Man.  Peter Blake
     

     

  • High Wire.   Sadie Tierney   

  •  As an artist my work tends towards the quiet and subtle so it was a fascinating journey looking for work that was bright and brash and loud and so very different from my own. I loved curating this show and working with Nathalie Levy at the RWA who curated the historical section of the exhibition. I wanted the contemporary work in Sawdust and Sequins to celebrate circus but also to acknowledge all the many facets of this complex subject and consequently for it to be a true examination of circus in the round.

     

    In celebration of 250 years of circus, the Royal West of England Academy (RWA) presents a major exhibition that pays homage to the greatest show on earth

    Sawdust and Sequins features historic and comtemporary art, inspired by the magic, thrills and spills of the Big Top.

    Since it began in the 1700's, circus has become a worldwide phenomenon and a rich source of inspriation for artists.  From historical depictions of familiar circus scenes to contemporary works exploring the glamour and grit, the exhibition surveys the complex, compelling nature of the circus and why it still captures our imaginations.

    Sawdust and Sequins runs at the RWA, Bristol, UK until June 3, 2018


    Fiona Robinson is an artist, writer, curator and a Founding Creator of Baby Forest.  See more of her work here

    © Fiona Robinson 2018  

    Explore more of Baby Forest here

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  • Selecting work is only one part of the jigsaw puzzle actually putting it all together in a coherent way is an artwork in itself. Install week arrived and armed with my floor plan, which had been edited repeatedly as it hung on my studio wall for months I turned up to survey the works that I had selected.  As usual the final hang was very different to my original plan as I made different decisions based on how works resonated with each other and the wonderful technicians at the RWA, many of them artist themselves, patiently moved works from wall to wall until magically it all made sense.



     

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  • There are plenty of works that focus on the colour and skill and bright lights of the Circus.  Eileen Cooper lent two of her vibrant paintings Acrobat and Trapeze, powerful evocations of the strength and beauty of circus performers. One of my favourite pieces in the show is Stuart Mitchell and Beth Carter’s surreal little animation in a battered old wooden box, of a girl twirling on the back of a horse. The sound comes from a traditional fairground pipe organ.

     

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  • Beth also made a fantastic new sculpture Farewell Carousel, a jumble of clowns, acrobats, monkeys and horses which are broken and tumbled together referencing classical sculpture as well as circus and the fragility of circus life. Pillowhead, a lumpy soft sculpture figure on a swing suspended from the ceiling, is also one of Beth’s works. It gives an alternative reading of the glamour of the trapeze artist.



     




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  • In my reading about the circus the thing that particularly affected me was injuries and death suffered by high wire circus performers and the appalling treatment of some of the wild animals, particularly the elephants.  With this in mind I was determined to not only cater for the public expectation of glitter and razzamatazz but also to address the darker aspects of the circus.  Beth Carter’s work does this brilliantly.  Beth is based in Bristol so I was able to go down to her studio at Spike Island several times.  I really wanted her drawing, Death at the Circus, with its pathetic dead lion looking like an empty pyjama case and was delighted when the owners in London agreed to lend it to the show.

     

     

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  •  Another tip over dinner with an artist friend led to Sophie Lascelles.  Sophie is represented by Daniel Arnaud but she lives in Barcelona. She remade her installation Anna Andreyevna in which the film of Anna is projected into a tiny circus tent on a bed of grass. She sent the original 8mm film to Canada, film is no longer processed in the UK, to be remade in 16mm so it would be robust enough to last through the exhibition. She also made the whole installation smaller so that it would fit in the available space and turned up with her family to install the whole work in the days before the exhibition opened.




     

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  •  I trawled through gallery websites, went to exhibitions and Fairs. I found the lovely little Fides Becker Monkey at the London Art Fair and the gallerist sent it over from Hamburg.

     

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  • In conversation with the painter Stewart Geddes, President of the RWA, Stewart mentioned that a Bristol collector, who collects his work, also had David Cobley’s Rev. Roly Bain Clown.  Another magical visit ensued as I spent hours being shown around an eclectic art collection, listening to anecdotes and talking music with a former opera singer and later BBC Music producer. And almost incidentally was offered both the David Cobley and a Ruskin Spear for the project. And so it developed.   

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    The ACE Funding also facilitated the printing of Abigail Lane’s magnificent tigers playing with a ball which completely fill the walls on either side of the main gallery doors. Locating the prints here was vital.  I wanted visitors to walk into the gallery unaware of what was behind them and then be really wowed when they finally turned around and saw the tigers.


     

     

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  • Curating an exhibition in a major gallery with some big names allows a curator to show works of great merit by less well-known artists and I took full advantage of this opportunity.  I had seen Chris Hibbard’s prints in open submission exhibitions at the RWA over many years. Performance is typical: a combination of drawing and watercolour on an etching proof – essentially he is a printmaker.  His work is not only extremely accomplished it is investigative, pushing the boundaries of what you can include in one image without ever losing sight of resolving the composition.  The layers of drawing and the level commentary in this complex piece touch, not only performance but the concept of tent as a shelter as well as a place for spectacle. It also makes connections between the itinerant nature of circus with the current plight of refugees and the homeless.  

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  • Many of the artists came up with new work. I travelled up to Wiltshire to see two paintings that Simon Quadrat had made based on his childhood memories of the circus in 1950s London.  I chose his delightful Circus Horse Dances the Polka, with its pianist centre stage playing Stravinsky’s Circus Polka.  A piece Simon told me he was learning to play on the piano. 




  • With the ACE grant I was also able to commission another of Paul’s artists, Susie Hamilton to make her wonderful painting Clown, chosen during another studio visit in North London from a selection of lovely little studies that Susie made for me. I put one of the studies in the show to accompany Susie’s large painting.  Appropriately Susie’s handling of paint has that same balance of control and risk-taking that is inherent in circus performance.

     

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  • I wanted to have Peter Blakes’s iconic Circus Collage Triptych with its kaleidoscopic colour and packed figures. At Meryl Ainslie’s suggestion, I contacted the Paul Stolper Gallery in London. Visiting the gallery, I could not believe it when Paul also showed me Blake’s exquisite little drawing Fat Man Rotunda. It is rare to see a work like this on public display. 

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  • Gallery view of the Sawdust and Sequins show at the RWA, Bristol, UK

     

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  •  One of the biggest problems encountered when you are searching for contemporary work for an exhibition is that works in private collections and artists studios are not documented anywhere unlike the works that are in Public collections. Returning from Ireland I set off to see Meryl Ainslie at Rabley Gallery in Wiltshire who had just staged a solo show of the work of Sadie Tierney and I remembered a little circus piece from the show. Sadie lives in Portsmouth and she had spent time with the Moscow State Circus, when they visited the city, drawing the performers at work.  Meryl also suggested Katherine Jones so I headed to London to visit Katherine’s studio in Wandsworth - one of many studio visits that I made during my search for work for the show. Both Sadie and Katherine eventually made new work for me funded by an Arts Council England grant secured by the RWA.  

  • It was less than a year after Strange Worlds: The Art of Angela Carter, which I co-curated for the RWA and I had vowed I was not going to do another curation for some considerable time.  But when I was asked to curate the contemporary element of Sawdust and Sequins I had to do it. Such an exciting project. I had heard of Astley’s Amphitheatre but I had no experience of the circus since childhood days.  I was about to head to Ireland on holiday so set off with an armful of books about circuses rather than novels.  Toulouse Lautrec, Picasso, Chagall and Degas were on my radar but the only contemporary artists who came to mind were Peter Blake and Eileen Cooper whose work I had used for Strange Worlds. 


    My reading immediately led me into possibly contentious territory. I decided to look for work which took the subject, deconstructed it and re-presented so viewers could re-examine their own concept of the circus. I would need to reconcile the negative aspects of the circus with something which was for many people a delightful excursion remembered through the ‘rose-tinted glasses’ of childhood. My search was on for artists whose practice and the way that they made work and their use of materials took precedence over any sense of hiding behind an illustrative approach to the subject. I wanted to find superbly made work of top quality that was edgy and investigative acknowledging the less salubrious side as well as the fun element of this immensely popular subject.  

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