RSA ANNUAL EXHIBITION **** ROYAL SCOTTISH ACADEMY, EDINBURGH
THE 184th Annual RSA Exhibition has just opened. If you feel a year has not passed since the 183rd, you would be right. It was in fact only five months ago. It is amicable, but the RSA has to fit into the programme established for the galleries that bear its name by the National Galleries, hence the disrupted rhythm of its annual shows.
The constraints of the NGS programme also mean that the slot available is too short to turn around the huge open-submission exhibition that has been the form of the annual show since 1826. So making a virtue of necessity, this year the Academy has abandoned open submission and instead the show is part curated work by invited artists and part members' exhibition.
It is sad to see such a long-established principle abandoned, but there are advantages to the new arrangement, too. The diversity of modern art makes it almost impossible for a big open-submission show to look coherent. This year however, the work is certainly diverse, nevertheless the exhibition looks spacious and much more of a piece than usual. The invited artists have each been given their own bit of wall which makes the whole thing look much tidier, but the members also have more space with fewer exhibits in total.
Four rooms are devoted to invited artists with a bit of overspill into the Sculpture Gallery. (The architects also have their own show curated by Robin Webster in the two rooms at the front, but I do not have space to review that here.)
The curator of painting and sculpture this year is Ian McCulloch and his theme is The Expressive Artist and Social Involvement. It's a grand title, but also loose enough to fit a wide range of work.
Certainly two artists, Margaret Hunter and Lys Hansen, both working in Berlin, fit the expressive label. Margaret Hunter has a very big, lively painting called The Taste of Clouds and the strange figures in it have also stepped out to become charming sculptures. Facing her across the room, Lys Hansen's Stage Fright is a wilder painting, but belongs in the same expressionist tradition. She too has a very striking sculpture called Hunter Gatherer.
Ron O'Donnell fits both parts of the theme too with a set of three enormous collages in an expressionist style, but with a firmly stated social intention. One image is a pile of severed Tutsi hands, another the leg of a black man turned into an umbrella stand, a macabre object that was actually once seen in a Brussels museum.
James Tweedie's mysterious surrealist landscapes are fascinating to look at, but seem much more dreamy and introspective than they are either socially aware or expressive.
On the face of it the same might be said of Calum Colvin's photocollages, but look at them more closely and they reveal depths and complexities of reflection. Two of them side by side take David Allan's Origin of Painting as their starting point. They are apparently identical, but one is upside down, inviting us to contemplate the inversion of the image that takes place in the lenses of our eye and of the camera. Colvin often also reflects on the constructions of our identity. In a reworking of Veronese's Toilet of Venus, Venus has a toy Scottish soldier perched on her toe. Giving an unexpected twist to an old clich, a passage from a story by Anas Nin records the erotic thoughts of a Parisian lady watching a troop of kilted soldiers.
Kate Downie has made a big wall drawing of Edinburgh's streets obstructed by tram works – nowhere there for kilted soldiers to march.
Perhaps most intriguing is Ian McCulloch's own contribution, a recreation of the pictures that he did for the Glasgow Concert Hall in 1990. Pat Lally, then Leader of the Council, had the pictures summarily removed and they have since vanished. It is an episode of Philistinism that Glasgow might prefer to forget, but it is fully documented here in a case of press-cuttings. The recreated paintings themselves are very decorative and make the whole story even more absurd.
Arthur Watson's two wall paintings, Mentioning the Unmentionable, make reference to a little-known body of ribald Scots songs and so echo the theme of censorship and suppression in McCulloch's story, though as these bawdy songs are also described as "high-kilted", perhaps there is also a nod towards Anas Nin. Watson's work nicely frames Keith Rand's beautiful birdlike forms of shaped timber.
The members' show complements all this. In the main gallery, Doug Cocker has a wall of beautiful wooden reliefs. Ian Howard has two exquisite small paintings. David Michie has a lovely still life of flowers and Victoria Crowe an enigmatic self-portrait. William Brotherston has an elegant bronze column, Plus and Minus. Downstairs Phil Braham is showing a series of mysterious photographs as winner of the RSA Morton Award for lens-based work. Craigie Aitchison's work, shown as a memorial to the artist's death last year, is in a small alcove, fittingly like a chapel. The late James Robertson also has a small memorial show.
In another innovation, the curator has also introduced a historical dimension by showing a group of works from the RSA's own collection, including Joan Eardley, William McTaggart and less familiarly David Foggie.
• Until 23 June.