“Fly” is a good Scots word. If you are fly, you are smart, but maybe a wee bit sneaky as well, though not in a malicious way. Choosing the word as the title for the VAS show this year, FLY 2016, the society’s President Robbie Bushe remembers Aberdeenshire farmers in his youth taking a break for fly cup of tea and a gossip. So he hopes this year’s show will represent the same sort of opportunity for the makers of the 200 or so works in the show selected from the 1,200 submitted. It is a chance for us, too, however to take a fly break from the bedlam of the Christmas market in the calm of the RSA to admire and reflect on it all. If you do, as you go in it is immediately striking how different this show is from the SSA one that preceded it. Not in quality. The SSA was good and so is this year’s VAS, but in style and content. It is a reflection on the vitality of Scotland’s artistic community that it could produce in succession two such different shows on this scale - and we still have the RSW to come as the third in the series that succeed each other over the winter.
FLY 2016 ****
Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh
As the boundaries between the traditional art forms have increasingly been dissolved, skill has too often ceased to matter. VAS does include all the mainstream arts, but it has also always been the principal showcase for what we still inadequately call “craft”, work that requires special skill. A century or so ago in the age of William Morris, mastering a craft was to attain the noblest of skills. So, looking at the craftwork here we should bear that in mind and remember that skill needs no apology.
For a number of years, VAS has been the venue for the Cordis Tapestry Prize. Ten shortlisted artists for what is described by VAS President as “one of the most important tapestry prizes in the world” are included in the show. They are a pretty diverse group. Patricia Taylor, for example, offers a portrait of Boris Johnson. Katharine Swailes’s Crossing the Avenue is a monochrome view of a street in New York and the title a pun on the cross-stitch she has used. The winner though is Jo Barker’s Swirl, a vortex of colour around a dense black centre.
This year VAS has also formed a partnership with Craft Scotland to support the representation of ceramics with ambitious work of three invited artists, James Rigler, Susan O’Byrne and Dawn Youll. The most striking of James Rigler’s slightly surreal and vaguely architectural objects is Obelisk, a tall, fluted column finished with shiny black glaze. Susan O’Byrne’s contribution is a wall of the heads of small animals. They look a bit like sporting trophies although that is clearly not her intention. Two alert looking deer seem so far to have escaped the gun and stand apart. Most impressive of the three is Dawn Youll. Her simply designed objects exploit to vivid effect contrasts both of colour and of texture: a matt black crow sits on a shiny grey post, or a crumpled lump of glossy brilliant red is supported by a slim wedge of polished steel. Among the other ceramicists, Jenny Mackenzie Ross’s Columnar Landscapes, cross sections of a jewel-like geology, are impressive. Nicola Henderson’s work is equally geological. A magnificent and massive dish is somewhere between a giant clamshell, a piece of coral and a geode of semi-precious stones.
In the other arts, one of the most spectacular objects is “We Are - Ourselves Entangled by Stan and Rosi Bonnar, a twin sculpture of a male and a female figure with highly decorated surfaces and with diminishing columns of figures rising out of them like vertical Russian dolls. Also in three dimensions, Thomas Hawson’s Migrant Memorial is a life-size boat. You are invited to tie a ribbon onto it and reflect on the fate of so many who entrust their lives to boats that are barely more substantial than it is. Roland Fraser has graduated from his familiar flat wall reliefs made of salvaged wood to create Trash Chest, a clothes chest decorated with lumpy reliefs.
Susie Leiper’s work on and with paper is both a demonstration of her command of the craft skills associated with paper and of the visual image as a painter. A set of paper hangings sited in the passage between two galleries and titled with a quote from Nan Shepherd, “One never quite knows the mountain..” are especially beautiful. Works like this, made with paper rather than simply on it, have recently become an art form on their own. Shona Fairgreive’s Dandelions, for instance, is a miniature, folded paper screen decorated with floating dandelion seeds, while Susie Wilson’s Carbon Copy is a sheet of fragile black paper laid flat and decorated with a pattern of grey, imprinted rectangles.
There is also a good deal of abstract painting in a similar cool mode and much of it is very good. Lindsay Gilmour’s Viewing Circle with Green Strip and Yellow and Black with Green, for instance, are both especially satisfying. Painting in enamel on steel, her fluency and lightness of touch are a delight. In Ghost Shed, Andrew Mackenzie combines the renaissance technique of silverpoint with oil to suggest the monochrome austerity of a polar landscape to great effect.
There are also straightforward figurative paintings. Jane McCance’s Red Smock shows a haunted face above the bright red smock and against a black ground. Joyce Gun Cairns’s Women Surviving, four women behind the barbed wire of a concentration camp, is even grimmer, if truthful, no doubt. In the same mood, but in the quite different medium of glass, Jeff Zimmer’s Temporal II is composed of two clocks. Clocks are a traditional symbol in a memento mori and that is evidently what this is. The clear glass of the clock faces has been replaced with deep and misty glass, one has a ghostly face hovering somewhere deep inside and the other a ghostly skull. Robert Powell’s Anthropolis is an etching of a bizarre figure that is also a city. Even more bizarre, however, is Magic Period 1, a large watercolour by Jihoon Son, that seems to represent a cheerful transvestite orgy.
*Until 27 December