Exhibition review: RSA 187Th Annual Exhibition, Edinburgh

Graeme Fagen's Natural Anarchy. Picture: complimentary
Graeme Fagen's Natural Anarchy. Picture: complimentary
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A change of tack for the RSA this year brings the striking and ambitious curated section to the fore, upstaging the main event, but there’s still plenty of skilled work to be found downstairs, too

RSA 187Th Annual Exhibition - Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh

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This is the 187th annual Royal Scottish Academy Exhibition, but a few years ago, and after the best part of two centuries, it was reorganised. Before that the task of the members of the Academy appointed each year as conveners had been to oversee the selection and, crucially, the hanging of what was often a very crowded exhibition. That changed when the open submission element was abandoned, or at least was moved to the separate annual RSA Open Exhibition later in the year.

The new structure added a curated element to the submissions from members and so the convener became a curator, selecting a theme and title and inviting artists from all over to submit work to illustrate it. It was an ambitious idea. Instead of just coping with the selection and presentation of several hundred miscellaneous works, there was room for adventure. It has also opened up exhibition-making to artists instead of professional curators. It is the latter who have got us in such a pickle with the competition for each to be trendier than their neighbour in showing contemporary art.

Hitherto this curated element in the RSA’s annual show has been merged with the members’ exhibition. This year however, the two parts are quite distinct. The curated exhibition is more ambitious than ever before. It occupies the four front rooms of the Academy and the Sculpture Court, while the members’ exhibition is in the central room, the two back rooms and part of the downstairs. The central room downstairs is devoted to architecture which rather stands between the two other parts. It is a members’ exhibition, but is also selected to some extent in response to Eddie Summerton’s chosen theme, Between the Late and Early.

In the last, valedictory chapter of AA Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner, when the news goes round that Christopher Robin is leaving the forest, there is an exchange between Late and Early, two of the tribe of small forest creatures of unspecified species who generally go under the name of Rabbit’s Friends and Relations. “Well Early?” and “Well Late?” they say to each other “in such a hopeless sort of way that it didn’t seem worth waiting for an answer.” I am not sure that Eddie Summerton had Winnie the Pooh in mind when he chose his title, but the coincidence seems apposite somehow. That last valedictory chapter of The House at Pooh Corner is a beautiful evocation of the transition from childhood and of the sense of loss that goes with the move from innocence to experience, but also of the seamlessness between these things and between the real and the imagined. They are not separate realms. One is simply a continuation of the other in exactly the same way as are the present and the remembered.

Of course, the world of the imagination is not all innocence. Far from it, but the central message of Surrealism – and its legacy is an unspoken constant in this show – is reconciliation, acceptance, following Freud, that the dark side is as much part of us as the light and somehow they must be reconciled. In Picasso’s great print, one of the supreme Surrealist images, the Minotauromachy, a little girl with a lamp and a bunch of flowers confronts the monstrous Minotaur and a scene of devastating violence over which he presides: the monster’s tamed and innocence reconciled with experience through acceptance is the Freudian message.

Picasso’s print is not in the show, but there are a number of historical images and objects that echo the need for recognition as a preliminary to reconciliation. Gustave Doré, William Blake, James Giles, John Duncan, Joseph Noel Paton and several others, all touching on similar imagery, are represented alongside contemporary artists. Two of the most striking objects, however, are a pair of Witches’ branks, or scold’s bridles from Dundee Museum. Hideous objects of torture, or at least of brutal humiliation, from 17th-century Scotland, what is most striking about them is the way they are embellished with horns and ears so that the unhappy wearer becomes a personification of the creature from the dark side presumed to have taken them over – dark spirits brought out into the open to be subdued.

These weird historical objects are heralded by two contemporary metal masks on the stairs, Brass Balaclavas by Roger and Reid. It gets stranger too. One of the most extraordinary exhibits is a set of ten dwarfish figures or groups of figures by Gabriela Fridiriksdottir that are worthy of Hieronymus Bosch. Equally startling is an animation by Alison Schulnik, in which an amorphous mass undergoes constant metamorphosis, shifting between ghoulish figures, mushrooms and dancing witches. The latter are also prefigured in an illustration of Tam O’Shanter by John Faed. Norman Shaw’s drawing Ghost of a Midge (Avenging Clearance Angel) offers a similar image of haunting metamorphosis, even though static. Shaw’s work also reflects a theme of Scottish and specifically Highland consciousness that runs through the show. Alexander and Susan Maris, for instance, use peat from Rannoch Moor to create simple black squares. They follow in the footsteps of Joseph Beuys on his famous visit to that wild landscape, but to bring the stark simplicity of Malevich’s Black Square to the Highlands. One of the most poetic of the works on this theme is Guth an Eòin/ Voice of the Bird by Hanna Tuulikki. Gaelic words describing the songs of different birds echo their patterns of flight across a wide sheet of paper.

Poetic becomes actual poetry in Kenneth White’s contribution of a poem for each gallery and in one of the most striking works in the show, he has also worked in collaboration with Will Maclean to present a combined visual and poetic series of soliloquies on the Highland landscape. It would make a very fine set of prints, and no doubt will. Works like this are at the cooler, more reflective end of the spectrum covered in this remarkable show, but anarchy bubbles away beneath all the same and surfaces brilliantly in the single most striking work included, by Graham Fagen. The words “Natural Anarchy” are written in light tubes against a broken mirror - a wonderfully economical summary of the whole thing.

From the RSA’s point of view the trouble with putting on such a striking show separately from what should be the main event, the members’ exhibition, is that it inevitably upstages it. Still, there is good work to be seen from the members. Arthur Watson, PRSA, revisits his part in the Scottish contribution to the Venice Biennale in 1990 with two thoughtful pieces in different formats matching Scottish and Venetian tides. It is a mute rebuke to the lamentable quality of the Scottish presence at the Biennale since subsequently it became official.

Derek Guild’s After Eden is a remarkable piece of tromp l’oeil, a painting of a big sheet of paper torn at the edges with a botanical painting of proteas and artichokes on it.

Victoria Crowe has made a beautiful screenprint from one of a series of paintings she did of winter trees touched by the setting sun. Jennifer McRae has revisited Lucian Freud’s imagery of large naked ladies, but has replaced his brutal coarseness with sympathetic delicacy that endorses the humanity of her sitter rather than diminishes it.

Jacki Parry’s print, The Wind Among the Rushes, evokes its subject, but in a collage of narrow strips of printed writing: poetry by implication. Philip Reeves, as always, shows himself supreme master of collage, with two works, Column and Cellarium. Both are composed of the simplest materials, Column, for instance, is just corrugated cardboard, white paper and few touches of paint, but as their titles hint, the effect in both is classical in its grandeur and balance. Classical grandeur becomes elemental in Mary Bourne’s Progression, two domed disks of contrasting, beautifully polished stone. Altogether the two parts of the exhibition make for a rich experience.

• Until 2 July