Art reviews: VAS & SSA Together at the RSA | Andrew Restall and Jonathan Gibbs at Open Eye

By holding a joint show, the SSA and VAS have been able to bring together a dazzling range of work

Entropy by Aileen A Paton PIC: Chris Watt
Entropy by Aileen A Paton PIC: Chris Watt

VAS & SSA Together, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh ****

Andrew Restall, Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh ****

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Jonathan Gibbs, Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh ****

This year the Society of Scottish Artists (SSA) and Visual Arts Scotland (VAS) have merged their annual show in the RSA, dubbing it VAS & SSA Together. So often pinched for time, by a remarkable piece of organisation the two societies have also got their combined show together in days. That will give them five weeks of exhibition. The third society, the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolour (RSW), has stayed on its own. Merging the SSA and VAS shows was common sense. They cover similar ground and attract the same sort of people, but while increasing their collective impact, they have also kept their identities. The SSA has always been there for younger artists, for instance, and now includes Graduate Showcase, a selection of work by recent graduates from Scotland’s five art schools. Most striking here is the work of sculptor William Braithwaite. His massive concrete staircases detached from any architectural logic are a powerful presence in the central gallery. Another recent graduate, Calum Wallis, uses stone lithography impressively to describe a massive piece of geology – or stone.

The SSA has also collaborated with An Lanntair in Stornoway to bring an impressive body of work from the Outer Hebrides. Amongst half a dozen artists, John Maher has photographed the crumbling interiors of abandoned houses, their furniture still in place as if the inhabitants had stepped outside but never returned. Printed on a large scale these are very telling. Alex Boyd uses the archaic wet collodion photographic process to create eerily timeless images of familiar Highland landscapes. Moira Maclean’s Thirst, empty whisky bottles in a tumble drier, is a terse comment on a fact of Highland life. The SSA has also collaborated with New Media Scotland in Observer Cinema – a big, if enigmatic, installation by Sven Werner. What it says about itself, however, is slightly more telling than what it actually seems to do.

VAS is the main forum for craftworkers and so includes, along with jewelry, tapestry and other crafts, an impressive display of glass work in collaboration with Craft Scotland. One of the most striking contributions here is by Jeff Zimmer. The Disconnect between Action and Consequence is the generic title for a series of light boxes with chilling images of military drones. Even more impressive is The Permanence of Memory and Material. Composed of hanging glass plate negatives that cast positive shadows, this is a two part work, one part composed of personal imagery, the other of public. The Great and the Good by Carrie Fertig, a glass lamb spinning on an old gramophone, has a wordy though worthy explanation of what it means, but as in image it is a little too close to Jeff Koons. Alan Horsley’s glass block, Untitled (Black Plane), is more economical.

The real strength of this joint show however is that it is an open exhibition. Most of the works on view have been selected from a huge submission. Here, too, the societies have worked as one, though works like the tapestry taken from an old photograph of a child, I didn’t know you then, by Elizabeth Stewart clearly reflects the VAS tradition while James Lumsden’s abstract Resonance 4/17 in gleaming scarlet and blue acrylic speaks of the SSA’s long engagement with the contemporary. Untitled, by Tom Stephenson, a massive gable end and empty fireplace constructed from railway sleepers and barbed wire is poetically evocative of abandoned Highland homes. It is also winner of the SSA award. Vintage by Michael Craik, a simple, abstract field of glowing colour, is impressive. The opposite of abstract, Chinese Ewer by Fiona Havelock in white chalk and charcoal is a tour de force of straightforward drawing skill. Erasure by Deirdre Macleod is also a drawing, but covering two enormous sheets of paper with minute pencil marks and rubbings-out, it is drawing reduced to the most elementary – and the most painstaking – mark-making. Entropy by Aileen A Paton, a huge work made out of eviscerated pages from magazines is equally painstaking, but also more impressive. As the once shiny magazines sag and droop, Entropy does seem an appropriate title.

Cloud Gatherer/Jupiter by Zachary Eastwood-Bloom is a bronze of a cloud-formed classical god. it is an unexpected and effective variation in an ancient theme. Norman Sutton-Hibbert’s Boyfriend Material is a nice visual pun, a hanging ribbon made of bits of shirt. A blue cyanotype printed on cotton, Lleena Nammari’s A Shroud For Unholy Rest is a beautiful thing. Susie Leiper’s Architecture of Disruption is an austerely beautiful abstract composition in muted colours. Paul Furneaux’s Pink Grey Blue is woodcut turned into something elegantly three dimensional.

Robbie Bush’s narrative, A New Hadrian’s Wall, is plainly entertaining but is hung too high to allow people see it properly. Overall the exhibition is nicely hung, although Bush’s painting isn’t the only work that is skied beyond reach. The number of prizes and awards the two societies have gathered from companies, shops, societies and individuals is impressive. Such support is witness to the continuing importance of the exhibiting societies and their place in the community. The number of visitors bears that out too. The RSA galleries were really crowded when I was there.

Andrew Restall at the Open Eye is a veteran artist whose name you may not know, but whose art you have probably seen. He has been a memorable contributor to the design of our postage stamps. This show is however principally of recent work in collage and collagraph, a print made from a collaged matrix. A few earlier works here from the 1980s and ‘90s show how landscape was his preoccupation then and, with that hint, you can also see how it still inspires what he does even though the results often seem abstract. Hill Study, for instance, becomes legible as just that and the rectangular shapes in Tract are plainly fields with details of animals and corn stooks and the profile of a hill on the horizon. The collagraph and etching Bisecting Wall is en eloquently simplified view of how walls draw lines on the Border hills. These are elegant and economical works, landscapes distilled to their poetic essence.

There is more elegance and economy in Jonathan Gibbs’s show, also at the Open Eye. Gibbs is a master of the art of wood engraving. Art on a small scale in which everything is reduced to starkly contrasted black and white, as you see here, can be quite stunning. I particularly enjoyed a set of four variations on the theme of Europa and the bull. Though they too are small, there are also paintings in this show to demonstrate that there is more to his work than just black and white. n

VAS & SSA Together until 8 March; Andrew Restall and Jonathan Gibbs, runs ended