Art review: RSA Annual Exhibition
RSA Annual Exhibition Edinburgh
AT TIMES I wonder if being a senior member of the Royal Scottish Academy these days might be a little like being a weary provincial bureaucrat in the early days of some emerging communist state. An endless round of committees to be cracked, old systems to be rethought and resolutions to be tabled.
The RSA, once in dire need of an overhaul, has been in a condition of permanent revolution for some six or so years now. Its year-round programme has been transformed under office-bearers and energetic programme director Colin Greenslade, with an increasing emphasis on supporting emerging artists, thematic displays and newer media. Sometimes, however, it feels like the work of dismantling old attitudes and building new ones is never quite done.
The annual show remains a conundrum. Better hung and more tightly selected than ever before it still remains a curious Edinburgh institution, where amateur and professional meet in a bout of genteel and inward-looking arm-wrestling, while the rest of the Scottish art world carries on obliviously with its global domination plan. The show does have a loyal audience though, and a platform in a beautiful building on one of the finest streets in Europe. It should be an occasion to tell a range of visitors exciting and distinctive stories from what is Scotland's most successful and outward-looking cultural sector. The solution, in recent years, has been a show within the show. Inviting artists of contemporary bent and secure international reputation to show safely well away from the amateur views of Venice.
This year, the 182nd annual exhibition, it's the turn of New Scots, two rooms of work curated by Alexander Moffat, the painter and former head of painting at Glasgow School of Art, by artists who have settled in the country from elsewhere.
There is something rather curious in the perceived boundaries for the selection though. While Thomas Joshua Cooper and Ilana Halperin, for example, are Americans, the inimitable David Shrigley hails from not so distant Macclesfield and Sam Ainsley was born just across Hadrian's Wall. It's not Scotland across there, I know, but is it really that foreign a land? I know that Wendy Alexander has suggested to Alex Salmond that he "bring it on", but I didn't realise that the border was already closed.
The real story, of course, is that these artists live and work from Glasgow, a city that has been home to a vibrant international community of homegrown and overseas artists for some 20 years now and where a show such as Jim Lambie's current exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art can attract 20,000 visitors in just two weeks. Most of these artists are not new Scots at all but new Glaswegians. How can a national institution such as the RSA tell that story without looking rather foolish for not nurturing or supporting such a phenomenon as it emerged, grew and prospered?
So does New Scots work? Well there's something rather cringe-inducing about an implicit suggestion that such senior figures are merely emergent. Shrigley, a blue-chip artist and popular global icon, hits 40 this year. Sam Ainsley, the godmother of generations of contemporary artists who studied under her on the Environmental Art and Masters courses at Glasgow, is given the opportunity to paint a wall her trademark red for the exhibition of two lush textile paintings, when she might have been invited to make a large solo presentation.
All in all, what impresses is a spirit of generosity among the group, and a bit of sly humour, but there's also a bit of a crush. Cooper's magisterial landscape photographs and Halperin's print portfolio Emergent Landmass, for example, speak to each other about a lengthy history of topography, imperial exploration and sympathetic observation, but the equilibrium is shattered by dominant expressionist works by Beth Fisher nearby.
Elsewhere it's largely the same old, same old. I liked the verve and existential cheek of the young artist Mair Hughes who used a recent RSA award to travel both to Turin and the Tunnock's Teacake factory in Uddingston. It is good as well to see the RSA support an artist in exile such as the young Palestinian Leena Nammari.
The most lovely thing, a tiny oddity in the memorial tribute to the late Bet Low, is a 50-year-old drawing of women and children receiving a dose of Vitamin D through light exposure. A glimpse of when the past looked futuristic
The RSA must be tired of being told by folk like me that it must continue to adapt or die. Still, change is not yet complete. Academicians start penning your resolutions and tabling your motions. The revolution isn't over yet.
• Until June 25
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Wednesday 19 June 2013
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