Visual Art Scotland refreshes the parts of the art community other exhibiting societies cannot reach
Visual Art Scotland is the last in the sequence of three exhibiting societies to show in the RSA this winter, and follows the RSW and the SSA. Supported solely on what they can earn from sales or raise by other means, all three face difficulties. So, do we really need three exhibiting societies showing in Edinburgh over and above the RSA? Should they not combine? One part of the answer to that question is simply numerical.
Visual Arts Scotland: Converge | Rating: **** | Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh
There are a lot of people out there looking for a chance to show their work. Together these exhibitions meet a demand that could never be met in a single show. With around 300 works included, the VAS show nevertheless represents a fraction of the works submitted. The other societies deal with similar numbers and together the three of them show a thousand works or more. The other part of the answer to my question lies in the character of the shows themselves. While there is inevitably some overlap, they are nevertheless quite distinct and appeal to different sectors of the artistic community. VAS evolved out of the Society of Scottish Women Artists, for instance, and one of its distinguishing features, inclusion of the Cordis Prize for tapestry, still reflects that origin. From prehistory, weaving was a woman’s preserve. We still talk of the distaff side, the weaving side, as the maternal line in a family. Of course it did not remain exclusively female. Nevertheless, women artists have held the dominant place in tapestry since it was revived in the late 19th century and some of the work in this show suggests that is still the case.
Depth by Marika Szàraz is a deep black, trapeze-shape with a square of overlapping ribbed elements set diagonally at its centre and a small square hole at its centre in turn. It is a contemplative work. As such it can surely speak for itself, but here, as elsewhere in the show, a wall text tells you how good it is, but in doing so adds nothing at all to the experience. Justine Randall’s four-piece Wiltshire Landscape, a set of four large panels each made up of 60 individually woven rectangles of solid colour, is an equally impressive piece of weaving. With blues tending to congregate above, dark colours beneath and a hint of a green horizon running through the panels, they suggest a wide landscape. The softness of the wool offsets the geometric discipline of the design to endorse the impression of nature distilled.
Tapestry is not the only applied art represented by VAS. There is less furniture this year than in some years, but there is jewellery and also some striking silver. A glass and silver bowl by Bryony Knox, for instance, in the form of a pelican with a small fish in its articulated beak is a delightful jeu d’esprit. So are two works in silver and gold by Yu-Hsing Liao. They are a cross between surgical dishes and surrealist breakfast trays with golden eggshells and knives and forks that become surgical instruments. Invited graduate student, silversmith Eva Melinka, likewise deploys a variety of tableware that seems to have forgotten its origins. She is not helped, however, by a label that tells us “each object refines and creates a ritualistic dialogue between the user and object that is charged with curiosity when activated in the act of drinking or eating.”
Skilled making is a feature of much of the other work. Sometimes perhaps it doesn’t transcend the beauty of the material and the skill deployed, but at its best it can be very satisfactory. Susie Leiper’s book, Out of fire, Terror, blackness and upheaval... could be a signature piece for the whole show: the “art” in “applied art” is art like any other. In form this work is actually between a book and a scroll. It has leaves, but folds out flat. Purely abstract, in gold, collage and lines of drawing, it is an eloquent book without words. Perhaps there is a moral there.
It is in keeping with the importance of tapestry that thread seen as the line of drawing plays a role in several works here. Invited artist Steven MacIver’s Nexus, beautiful veils of shining threads stretched on a frame between floor and ceiling, is a striking example. A kind of drawing in space, it looks back to the threaded sculptures of Naum Gabo and Henry Moore in the 1930s. (Coincidentally, invited graduate student Natalie Jane Stewart echoes these thread drawn lines very closely in some of her jewellery.) Another invited artist, Andrew Mackenzie, does something rather similar, but with actual drawing. His subject is ruined filling stations which he records in stark perspective lines against a dark ground to suggest the ghostly presence of the architect’s original conception as nature encroaches to reclaim her own. In contrast, Catherine Davidson draws a whole townscape in the wobbly lines of thread stitched into cloth.
There is also painting, sculpture, print-making and photography, all realised in more conventional ways, much of it is good. Victoria Brown’s pieces of surgical glass embedded in wool dyed in an intense blue reminiscent of Yves Klein are strange and very striking. Equally striking is Felicity Bristow’s Draw-ing(s) No.3, with layers of vivid colour that seem to have been drawn up into the paper by some kind of osmosis. Two small, untitled collographs by Susie Wilson have a presence out of proportion to their size. Two etchings by Thomas Adam of simple geometric forms also hold their own. Kevin Cantwell has made a strange flying machine from wood and paper that seems to belong somewhere between Mad Max and In the Night Garden. Olivia Irvine’s painting, Room, is a lovely piece of rococo imagining. Hazel Vellacott’s Seven Stories, richly coloured paintings on panels of weathered wood, are equally appealing. But I particularly liked Tessa Clowney’s big, still-life of spoons, not actual spoons but sculptures of spoons, the poetry of the everyday, or the essence of life in a thousand kitchens distilled.
Overall the show is sparely and elegantly hung. There is no sense of the crowding that so often characterises big group shows and that is a reminder that these society shows are still a serious and valuable part of the art calendar.
• Until 20 February