With just five rooms available, the SSA has still managed to display a varied selection of works from screenprints to sculptures and installations
Society of Scottish Artists Annual Exhibition 2016 ****
Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh
Time is All Around ***
Paul Furneaux: Borrowed Light *****
Vincent Butler: Studies from Life *****
Both Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh
The RSA building was originally “The Building for the Societies”; the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Antiquaries, the Trustees Academy, the Society for the Promotion of the Fine Arts and then the Royal Scottish Academy were all housed there. Later the RSA and the National Gallery shared the new building that is now the National Gallery. Then in 1907, in exchange for part of its collection, “The Building for the Societies” was given exclusively to the RSA “in perpetuity”. It was a bit dog-in-the manger about sharing it, but eventually the Society of Scottish Artists and the other exhibiting societies established their right to use it too. Then, a decade or so ago, the National Gallery claimed that as it was heir to the defunct Board of Manufactures which had built both buildings, the RSA building belonged to it, and took it over except for the RSA’s rooms on the lower floor. The rights of the other exhibiting societies were ignored. With difficulty they have managed to hang in there all the same and to raise the money for the rent (there was no charge under the RSA). This year, as last, they are taking the galleries in sequence for three weeks each from now until February.
One thing has changed however. Instead of eight exhibition rooms, this year there are only five. The National Gallery has taken over the three front rooms for a Christmas shop. This is apparently in anticipation of the loss of revenue from the main shop to be closed for works at the Mound. The Galleries are under financial pressure and need their retail outlet no doubt, nevertheless you do wonder if they are really using the building for the purpose for which it was intended.
In spite of the diminished space, the SSA has put together a very pleasing show, although the pressure on space is apparent. Some work has been “skied” as they used to say; when the annual shows were hung floor to ceiling those “skied” in the upper layers were more or less out of sight. It is not quite as bad as that, but still it is a shame for Catherine Sargeant, for instance, whose three works use words which, as presented here, are barely legible. Juliana Capes has less trouble being seen although she goes even higher. Her installation of umbrellas lost and found bursts out of the wall and soars up into the ceiling of the central gallery like a flight of shabby birds.
In one of the rear galleries Jihoon Son’s The Sublime Onanism is a huge installation of painted stage flats that lead you through the shrubbery to a couple doing rude things. On a slightly smaller scale, invited graduate Thomas Stevenson has made a stove, beautifully if paradoxically, entirely of wood. Also beautifully made of wood is Robert Balfour Ward’s Leaving Earth, a diverse collection of 50 or so small wooden rockets, like so many space-bound rolling pins, with the occasional bat or flying fish mixed in. There’s more woodwork in Liz Skulina’s To Do List, a tall branch split to reveal all the things she will need for whatever it is she has to do. It is as though they were somehow themselves a form of growth. It is a nice allusive piece. In contrast, however, Deirdre Macleod has covered two enormous sheets of paper with minute pencil marks: drawing reduced to its most hermetic and elementary form.
A lot of the works are prints though this doesn’t seem to restrict their scale. Angela Taylor’s Shore, for instance, is a huge screenprint on aluminium. She uses pale blues and greys against the reflective metal to evoke the light and colour of the water’s edge. Her Squall, printed on acrylic sheet, is equally effective. Niall Campbell also uses screen print, combining it with other media in From the Inside, a beautiful, abstract composition exploiting contrasts of warm and cool in black, grey, blue and white. Aleksandra Kargul uses the same range of colour and temperature in The Storm, a charmingly simple, small lithograph of two gulls on a pier beneath a looming cloud. Simplicity is also the key to Victoria Bernie’s Chromograph Drawing, Fifty Years, 0.05 seconds, a single tree against a field of quiet grey. Trees against the sky are also the theme of Stig Marion Weston’s hanging, five part photogram,
Though it looks like a painting, even Cecile Simonis’s The Stone Walls, a triptych in blue monochrome and a homage to Steven Campbell is described as cyanotype and screenprint. There are also paintings however. Jane McCance’s Night Train, for instance, is a striking picture of two mask-like faces against black and red. It is as though two ghosts had invaded an abstract painting. Jane Stokes’s Road Trip Relics is a set of 60 tiny, but very pretty watercolours apparently painted on scraps of burnt paper. Invited graduate Kate Livingstone’s explosive pair of abstract paintings, Toxic Corrosive and Inward Colllapse are in oil and enamel, but for some peculiar reason painted on leatherette. James Lumsden’s group of vivid abstract paintings are startlingly luminous. The effect is remarkable although their technique seems to be conventional.
Paula McClure’s assemblage, Hideous Evolution, is a wonderfully surreal piece of sculpture. Shona McGovern’s two ceramic masks are equally striking. There are many newcomers here, but familiar names too. Lys Hansen’s drawing, Museum of Memory, is a masterpiece of eloquent simplicity, while Robert Powell’s prints, although equally eloquent, are, in contrast, masterpieces of intricate, humorous complexity.
If prints are a major part of the SSA, 24 more printmakers have come together in Time is All Around at Edinburgh Printmakers, a show in aid of St Columba’s Hospice. There is a wide range from Alison Blamire’s abstracts in glowing reds and yellows, or Christine Wylie’s small intense geometric etchings to Gavin Johnston’s simple landscape, Springtime in Greyfriars’ Kirkyard. I particularly enjoyed Linda Furby’s collograph on card folded like a miniature screen and combining images with the words of a song by Yvonne Burgess.
Paul Furneaux is one of our leading printmakers and he has an outstanding show at the Open Eye. He has made himself a master of the Japanese technique of Mokuhanga, printing in colour with multiple woodblocks. In most of his work he uses a form of grid composition, balancing colour, texture and transparency with an almost musical effect. This show however also includes more straightforward landscape images of great beauty.
Also showing at the Open Eye is veteran sculptor Vincent Butler. Although his masterly figurative bronzes are familiar from group shows, this is a rare opportunity to see his work in quantity. There are single figures, groups and narrative reliefs. There is also a quite outstanding still life of fruit carved in stone. This is a medium he has rarely used, but he certainly shows himself to be as much its master as he is of working in bronze. n
*SSA Annual until 24 November; Time is All Around until 23 December; Paul Furneaux and Vincent Butler until 22 November