ESSA annual exhibitions - Royal Scottish Academy

What's The Best Piece Of Advice Anyone Has Given You? by Jenny Smith
What's The Best Piece Of Advice Anyone Has Given You? by Jenny Smith
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Hundreds of artists presenting work the public will really engage with are again jammed into a small part of the National Galleries and charged for the privilege. How is Scottish art expected to thrive in such conditions?

ESSA annual exhibitions - Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh

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ONCE again the The Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour (RSW), the Society Of Scottish Artists (SSA) and Visual Arts Scotland (VAS) are exhibiting side-by-side in the RSA and once again it is against a background of existential crisis. The National Galleries of Scotland reasons that it has to cover its costs and so the rent it charges for the building is considerable, though it takes no profit. The societies have all the other costs of an exhibition, too, however. An umbrella organisation Exhibiting Societies of Scottish Artists (ESSA) pools their fundraising to try to secure the future, but it is proving difficult to the point of despair. The determination to continue in the RSA is not obstinacy, however. There is no real alternative, but also, the RSA was built as a shared public facility. The national societies belong there. They should not be forced out of the capital or into extinction.

The three societies have distinct histories and continue to play an important role in the art life of the country. The SSA especially has a long tradition of bringing radical new art to a Scottish audience. Nevertheless, art is not all radical razzmatazz, or perhaps more cynically, it is not all PR and silly money. However much noise is made about Turner Prize winners and their like, their art has very little to say to the great majority, to people who enjoy seeing art they could imagine wanting to have in their houses, people who want artists who make art, not news. This wide constituency is one that the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) should cultivate, not ignore or disregard as beneath notice. How many of the leading artists in these organisations, or indeed the RSA, are properly represented in the national collection, if at all? Precious few.

Equally, the competition to get work into one of these exhibitions reflects the strength of demand from the artistic community. This year, for instance, the SSA saw its submission rise from 800 to 1200 for an eventual display of under 300 works. The exhibitions are free to the public and it is open to anyone to submit work. They are part of the working machinery of our society.

For that reason the National Galleries have an interest here too. The societies are part of the health of the community to which the Galleries themselves owe their existence. To the extent that the NGS find it difficult to fill the rooms of the RSA all the year round, the societies even provide them with a service. Surely the NGS could forgo the rent, treat the whole thing as a collaboration and tell their paymasters that it is part of their own vital outreach. Such an arrangement would not be unheard of. Indeed, I understand that the NGS is already planning a partnership with Tramway, and others with the reputation of leaders in contemporary art, in 2014. The SSA, at least, has been a leader in contemporary art for very much longer and with a much more open mind. Nor would the NGS need to feel such a partnership compromised their own high standards. There is some very good work here and, in the face of real difficulties, it is well presented.

The three exhibitions together account for more than 600 works in every possible medium. It is quite a challenge seeing it all, let alone picking out the winners, though the societies themselves do that with a wide range of prizes from bequests, gifts and sponsorship. These prizes are also an important opportunity for artists to win recognition.

This year, as last, the building is divided three ways. The idea of amalgamating the shows, or even the catalogues, has apparently met with resistance from the RSW. The RSW has also diverged from the other two to insist that the works in its show are only numbered, not labelled. This is not visitor-friendly. You have to buy a catalogue to know what’s on the walls. If this really is an existential crisis, such fiddling is like squabbling over a bill on the Titanic.

The SSA has the eastern half of the main floor and the RSW the west. VAS is downstairs in the smallest space. The SSA has also continued its long tradition of inviting artists. This year there are invited graduates and a team of printmakers from Slovakia. There is also a section for installation and performance, including, in the unlikely event that you were bored, an ongoing colour Sudoku from Morag Muego.

One of the most striking works in the SSA is What’s the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you? by Jenny Smith. It is an enormous piece of hand-written script, cut out and hung like a black lace curtain. In fact there is quite a lot text here. Nearby, Leslie May Miller’s Water of Leith is a concrete poem. So is a group of works on the theme of a peat bog by Caroline Dear. A black and white reflection on the beauty of small things is a concrete poem by Catherine Sargeant, while the Printer’s Table by Gary Gowans turns an exchange of text messages into a rather striking reversed woodblock.

Not everything is literary, however. Marcel O’Connor’s Crust is a nicely resolved abstract composition. In contrast, Kersti Strandberg has a set of five large prints of flowers hanging like oriental scrolls, while Patricia Bray’s Family is a memory box of miniature drawings. Joyce Gunn Cairns’s Jackie Kay’s Vadnie is a vivid graphic portrait. So, in a very different mode, is Allan Beveridge’s imaginary group portrait, Rimbaud and Co. Duncan Robertson’s Hanging Jury, just a rope noose, is as laconic as any hanging judge ever was.

The nice thing about the RSW is that it is just what it says it is, an exhibition of watercolours. Not that this makes them all the same – it is a wonderfully versatile medium. In a big picture at the entrance Adrian Wiszniewski gives it the force and solidity of oil paint, but keeps the purity of hue that is special to watercolour. Neil MacPherson does the same in A Man Enjoying the Beauty of the World. Joyce Cairns’s Shadows, on the other hand, is an image of mood and memory. Victoria Crowe’s Hillside Beyond Perugia is a classic combination of the transparency of watercolour with the density of ink. The veils of colour in Ian McKenzie Smith’s At Muskoka show he is a master of the medium. So too does the balance of freedom and intricacy in both Elizabeth Blackadder’s Summer Flowers and her Amaryllis. Philip Reeves’s Hamilton Drive North is, as usual, a quiet masterpiece in a league of its own.

In such a potentially conservative medium, there are inevitably a few red pictures in square gold frames, or at least the equivalent artistic bauble, but the standard on the whole is high as it is in VAS, too. There are watercolours too, of course. Che Zang deploys the oriental approach in a painting of Calton Hill in the snow. John Bellany, as an invited artist, has sent Fealty, a fierce watercolour reflecting on time and the limitations of human life. There is a similar sentiment in Paul Charlton’s two affectionate skulls representing Endless Love. There is concrete poetry here too. Suzy Leiper’s Let Dry Land Appear is a beautiful example of her inimitably poetic combination of calligraphy and painting. Paul Furneaux’s Untitled: Leaf Green is a cool abstract print that would be a fitting homage to Philip Reeves, father of modern Scottish printmaking.

One of the distinctive features of the VAS is the applied art. There is tapestry, jewellery and also some very beautiful furniture, notably Jack Roots’s Wavy Elm Cabinet.

• Until 24 March.