Art reviews: RSW Annual Open Exhibition | SSA & VAS Open, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh

Tangent by Sophia Pauley at the SSA | VAS Open
Tangent by Sophia Pauley at the SSA | VAS Open
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From bold abstracts to watercolours of Scotland’s flora and fauna, there’s something for everyone at the RSA, writes Duncan Macmillan

RSW 139th Annual Open Exhibition, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh ****



SSA | VAS Open, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh ****



This year the Society of Scottish Artists (SSA) and Visual Arts Scotland (VAS) have once again combined their shows. The Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour (RSW) remains determinedly independent, but all three are showing concurrently in the Royal Scottish Academy, the combined show upstairs and the RSW in the lower galleries. The SSA and VAS are also charging a modest admission fee. It’s a gamble perhaps, but will help to pay the rent to the National Galleries of Scotland. Combination does make sense, but although there is already overlap between the two shows perhaps the RSW has to remain apart. Its raison d’être is to be a showcase, not for art of all kinds like the other two societies, but for one particular way of making it. The interpretation of what constitutes watercolour has necessarily become so broad, however, you do wonder how long it will continue to make sense standing alone.


Altogether there are some 500 works on show without counting almost 70 essays in the moving image that are the response to an initiative by the SSA. They have a screening programme in a dedicated gallery, though I am afraid it would take a very dedicated critic to watch them all. Even without them, it is quite a lot to get your head around. Perhaps a broad distinction that one could make between the two shows is that the RSW tends to be more conservative, but then that is not necessarily a bad thing. In art novelty and originality are too easily confused while skill is undervalued. It is refreshing to see something done with real skill as one frequently does in this show. Watercolour lends itself to precise observation and delicate description as Jonathan Sainsbury uses it, for instance, in a beautifully painted sheet of Hares and Corncrakes. In On the Verge, Sheila Anderson-Hardy describes the briars and insects on a field margin with similar delicacy. Ann Ross’s Hedgerow Visitor is a blackbird in the same sort of setting, but she evokes the scene more loosely, creating a poetry of transparent layers that is unique to watercolour. David Forster is also master of the watercolour technique. He uses its transparency and luminosity to create landscapes lit by eery light. Anne Skinner’s Winter Mist is a painting of trees silhouetted against misty light. In an additional element, a wider view of the same scene is presented beneath as a miniature folding screen. Hazel Nagl’s The Weaver’s Loom Shop uses these qualities of the medium to create a wonderfully complex layered interior looking through the weaver’s web in shades of orange and vermillion to the cool light of a window beyond.  Michael Clark’s Mostly Bordeaux is just a wine glass roughly drawn in a field of red. Ian Cook’s Baboon is equally bold. Energetically painted with a broad brush, it is dominated by primary colours, while the baboon’s mask-like face echoes Picasso. Susan Macintosh has a work called Potential, a large, unframed sheet, painted in a way that ranges from luminous transparency to heavy black textured pigment. Its potential is perhaps that it could be cloud, sky, or waves on the shore, or perhaps we need not choose. It is satisfactory as it is.


All three societies invite a number of new graduates from the year’s degree shows. The RSW’s invited graduates include Joanna Migut whose Eighty Eight is a collection of 88 portraits of apples, each cut in half and painted in cross section on separate sheets of paper. Chloe Colquhoun is also an invited graduate, but her Out of Sight, Out of Mind, stands out in this company by being completely abstract. It is a rather beautiful web of concentric rectangles overlaid by parallel lines with differing intervals all in white on brown and with a set of small dark circles looming behind. It is all rather musical and would perhaps look more at home upstairs in the SSA/VAS exhibition.


Certainly, although there is representational work of one kind or another in that show, and there other sorts of external reference too, abstraction in its various forms does tend to dominate. A notable exception is Robert Powell’s marvellous Myriorama: Theatre of Exile. It’s unkind to call it a strip cartoon, but that is its form. It is also a theatre because there are spectators watching events unfold in a dystopian world which has echoes of Goya, Rembrandt and the monstrous, haunted visions of James Ensor. Barry McGlashan often follows a similar track with his inventive take on the old masters, but he strikes a different note here with Burning Boat, simply a beautiful rendering of fire over water with echoes of Monet and Turner and all the richness of colour that suggests. Jane Askey also makes straightforward landscapes. She paints farms and glass houses combining oil-paint and drawing in a way that is unusual but effective.


More typical of this show, however, is Tangent, a big, bold abstract by Sophia Pauley. It consists of three parts, two on the wall and one on the floor, and they echo each other in composition but are also linked by a single sweeping calligraphic line. Ilana Pichon is an invited artist from Quebec. Her work is similarly bold and abstract but it also has a set of works on paper pinned to it. One work with ten labels, it is a kind of portmanteau piece. Rowan Paton’s two works, Steep Decline and Climate Precipice, are hung like a diptych and certainly work that way. Both combine opaque black shapes and delicate drawing, all against bare canvas in a way that is very satisfying. The mysteriously named artist …grafik 2.1 has a work, called Untitled, but which then has a subtitle. Such confusion aside, it is an austerely minimalist silkscreen print of black rectangles against a ground of larger light coloured rectangles apparently created by collage. John Ayscough’s large work, Untitled, consists of strips of corrugated cardboard laid flat on each other to create the shape of a large canvas with an unusual texture, but then along the top it is decorated with gold leaf. Another work by the same artist is simply a piece of found cardboard, gilded. Such bold simplicity is equally striking in Gillian McFarland’s Wonderings 1, a piece of paper roughly rectangular and worked over with what she calls “graphite puncturings” until it has a positively geological blackness. Nearby in Mars Study II, Iona Parkin achieves a similar effect with mixed media, but the outcome is white not black. Among invited graduates, Emelia Kerr Beale dominates the entrance to the galleries with a strange, etiolated beast.


VAS’s distinctive contribution to all this is, as usual, in the inclusion of craft. There is both furniture and jewellery, but the Cordis Tapestry Prize is also always part of the show. This year, however, tapestry seems to mean almost anything composed of rhythmically repeated forms. Sue Lawty’s work, for instance, is a huge collection of minute pebbles arranged in a grid. There is some stuff about “primal and deep visceral responses of connection” in the label, but happily my viscera remained unconnected. Dail Behenna’s work is more engaging. It involves repetitive patterns of tiny, rectangular three dimensional shapes, a series of miniature and rather orderly Giant’s Causeways. It’s not what we might usually understand as woven material. Nevertheless the elements are in fact actually woven together.


Finally what about those 70 or so videos? They come from all over the world and I did sample them. I watched a woman draw the landscape by dragging a large pencil along the beach and elsewhere. I saw films of all sorts of other activity. I even watched an ice-lolly melting. I thought perhaps next year I should submit one of paint drying. More seriously though, I have seen hours of artist’s films, but I have seen very few that repaid the time spent watching them. At the very least, if this is to be a feature of future shows, the SSA should stipulate a limit to the length and make it a short one too. 

Both shows run until 30 January