Art review: New Contemporaries, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh

After two years of cancellations due to covid, the pick of Scotland’s art school graduates from 2020 are finally getting their chance to shine at the RSA, writes Duncan Macmillan

I am enjoying my food, 2022, by Stephanie Dulson
I am enjoying my food, 2022, by Stephanie Dulson

RSA New Contemporaries, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh ****

Two major events are fixed in the Royal Scottish Academy’s busy calendar: the Annual Exhibition and New Contemporaries, which features work by artists selected by Academy members from the degree shows of Scotland’s five art colleges. Except of course it hasn’t quite worked like that in these disrupted times. The 2022 New Contemporaries show includes around 50 artists and a small group of architects, but they are actually the graduating class of 2020, although even then the process was not normal. There were no degree shows in 2020. Selection had to be made from online presentations. The exhibition should then have taken place in the spring of 2021, but that wasn’t possible either. So we have missed a year, and the graduating class of 2020 is actually showing in 2022. Somehow the programme will have to catch up with the missing year of 2021. Meanwhile, too, the graduating students of 2020 have had an extra year. They may be just a little bit further on in their careers, but, on the other hand, the difficulties of the last two years have perhaps also been especially acute for students and they may have needed extra time. Teaching was online and they had to try to find space to work at home instead of in their college studios.

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Certainly a troubled mood is apparent right at the beginning of the show. The right-hand half of the first gallery is entirely occupied by Madeleine Wood’s startling cutout, life-sized drawings. Covering both walls, floor to ceiling, some are pasted together in loose assemblages, while others are free-standing. On its own on the end wall, a single figure looking like a female version of the ancient forest spirit, the Green Man, dominates the scene. Emerging perhaps from the forests of the artist’s unconscious, the whole assemblage is an extraordinary phantasmagoria of strange creatures, but it is all drawn with real energy and conviction.

Reclamation of the Exposition #05, 2020, by Tayo Adekunle
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At the other end of the gallery, Rosie Trevill’s work is not so different in mood, but is altogether more restrained in presentation. It consists of three hanging banners of red fabric with what is apparently a record of her thoughts and mental struggles. It appears to be written in her handwriting and then screen-printed in white on the red ground. Because of the way the cloth hangs, it is not all clearly legible, but perhaps that is the idea. Writing is an action in itself, even without a reader.

Josie Jones’ work is equally reflective, if a little less troubled. It is a set of images, some figurative some abstract. Assembled in intercutting layers, they seem to shift seamlessly between painting and photography. The effect is a little like poetic mental space that Rauschenberg created mixing painting with grainy newsprint pictures transferred to canvas.

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Jack Whitelock paints strongly designed abstract pictures. They really need no gloss, although he has felt compelled to offer one. Catherine Eckersall’s painting Erigall Erigall is a striking variation on the theme of one of Max Ernst’s magic mountains and her other images are equally surrealist. Ellen Mitchinson creates powerful paintings that look like the childhood game of “heads bodies and legs” gone wild. She tells us that her work “explores the infinite mutability of the human body,” but her paintings are essentially a jumble of body parts with a few heads added. It is all carried out with such conviction that the effect is really impressive.

Good drawing underlines much of the best work here, but Lauren Ferguson goes one better and exhibits a group of enormous, straightforward pencil drawings, a boat on a trailer and the lower half of the trunk of a giant Wellingtonia, nearly life size and with a plaque recording that it was planted by Queen Victoria in 1842. Fanny Arnesen also presents images of trees. She is Swedish and her four big paintings capture the mood of the forests whose frightening darkness fuelled the imaginations of our northern forebears.

Last Trip, by Malin Cederlund

All the artists present their work with covering notes. Perhaps it is a requirement, but it is surely unnecessary. Mostly they offer improbable interpretations of what the artists are doing or trying to do couched in the obscure language of contemporary critical gobbledygook. (We can’t blame them for that. It is the zeitgeist.) Kinga Elliott is quite straightforward about her beautiful abstract paintings, however. They are she says “an interplay between shapes and colours searching for a balance within the composition.” Quite so. As she herself says some of her compositions are geometrical, others organic. The results are original and very satisfying. On the opposite wall, a street scene by Sofia Hallström recalls de Chirico’s mysterious townscapes, but then it is enclosed by an iron grille. She does something similar with her other pictures and the effect is quite startling. Nearby Maeve Laurence collects rainwater in a funnel made of used denim and then stores it in jam jars. It seems to be a charming satire on pointlessness activities in modern life, for she concludes that she may not be a Rain Collector forever, but at least “I can continue to make my own purpose.”

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There are several photographers among the artists, but the most striking photographic work is a pair of nearly life size, triple portraits – or self-portraits? – by Tayo Adekunle. She also introduces her own clothed figure into 19th century photos of naked black women, thus creating a telling, wordless commentary on a history of exploitative images.

Women’s history is also the theme of Stella Rooney’s work exploring the stories of the women who worked in the jute factories and other industries and who, she says, have made Dundee a matriarchal city. Aisling Ward has undertaken a parallel project on the lace industry in Nottingham. These are essentially sociological projects on women and work, though Ward’s film of lace-making rendered as a dance move is closer to the metaphor which is the stuff of art. Kiera Saunders makes extraordinary masks out of rubbish and recycled material. They are truly grotesque and that seems to be the point.

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Members of Alicja Rodzik’s family were murdered in the Holocaust and she reflects on its horrors in a solemn and touching group of works. Mourning, a profile bust of a pensive girl in stitched black fabric, is a very eloquent piece indeed. Rachel McClure achieves a less troubled poetry, walking around Elgin and recording her experiences in a series of square plaques. Either in plaster or cast iron, they are inscribed with short texts like “Footsteps, Moray Street”, “Laughter, Batchen Street”, “Silence, Lockdown, C19” or bluntly “Shitstorm April, C19.”

Glowworm, by Alice Pool

Certainly, spoken or unspoken, the pandemic does hang over this show and it is a clear influence on the most striking work here. By Molly Kent, it is an extraordinary group of ten woven works. Of various sizes and shown as a linked unit, they represent the artist’s own nightmares through 2021, evidently reflecting her diagnosis of CPTSD and more widely on the disruption of the pandemic. Images of fire, of vortexes of light and dark and disembodied eyes, they truly are nightmares. The texture and saturated colour of wool gives them a special intensity, yet they also have real beauty and control. They are a truly remarkable part of a show full of promise.

Until 3 April

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Installation view of work by Molly Kent

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