Art reviews: Academicians in Isolation, RSA, Edinburgh | Great Scots in Isolation, Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh

Leading Scottish artists present work made during lockdown in two new online exhibitions at the RSA and the Scottish Gallery
Lockdown Rainbow 4 by Graham FagenLockdown Rainbow 4 by Graham Fagen
Lockdown Rainbow 4 by Graham Fagen

Academicians in Isolation, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh ****

Great Scots in Isolation, The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh ****

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If there is an upside to the present emergency for the visual arts, it is the way they have adapted to a new, digital reality. They have been online for years of course, but the crisis has forced new thinking. The results have often been technically ingenious and one hopes that in the long term this will open new avenues.

Tsuna Town Tryst by Elspeth LambTsuna Town Tryst by Elspeth Lamb
Tsuna Town Tryst by Elspeth Lamb

I wrote recently about the Fine Art Society’s brilliant virtual exhibition. The auction house Lyon & Turnbull took note and put their latest art sale up online using the same clever programme. Some of the public galleries might think about it too – it is as near as you can get to giving real meaning to the idea of a virtual visit. The public galleries would have an advantage as well, as this method only works when there is actually something hanging on a wall somewhere.

The RSA was one of the first Scottish galleries to put itself online in a new and more ambitious way in response to the crisis. They couldn’t hang their Annual Exhibition on the gallery walls, so instead they adopted a different approach: they set up a virtual wall and hung each work virtually on it, giving a sense of scale and context. Now they have used the same method to put an Academicians’ Gallery show online.

This gallery was created from the old RSA library, and as a place where the work of members could be shown outside of the Annual Exhibition it has been a great asset. The new online show is called, appropriately for the times, Academicians in Isolation. It includes work by around 30 artists. Some have two or three works, some half a dozen and Doug Cocker, always prolific, has eight small, vividly coloured wall pieces.

Virus Spike by RSA President Joyce Cairns is a good signature piece for the show. It looks like her familiar self image, but it is crisscrossed by contending lines, cubism deployed to show a head-splitting pain. For added discomfort, a parrot is pecking at her head. Though it does suggest she has had the virus, she assures me she has not. Rather she says, “Virus Spike reflects the fear of catching it, the unseen threat and the disbelief that this is really happening.” Equally apposite and equally bleak, although I hope not prophetic, is her Christmas in Isolation. Looking very glum, she’s sitting with a glass of wine and a very lonely Christmas pudding.

Graham Fagan is equally topical, painting the rainbow, symbol of solidarity against the virus. Four works in ink and watercolour have all the chromatic range of the rainbow, but the colours have run, the edges are ragged and the arc dissolved: a wry comment on our times.

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Sam Ainsley seems to be reflecting even more bleakly in a set of graphic images with titles like What Pain Feels Like, Alien Seed and Exit, the latter a skull seen through a web of lines suggesting the filaments of some malign micro-organism.

In contrast, Henry Kondracki is always more cheerful. Southside Shadows, for instance, is a picture of a sunny spring day. Nevertheless it also seems topical. The sunshine has up until now done a great deal to make isolation and lockdown more bearable. The picture is a view of the Meadows in Edinburgh, the trees in full blossom and a view beyond looking up to Salisbury Crags. Leon Morrocco is another artist whose work is always enjoyable. He too looks out from his isolation at the wider world with four scenes of harbours in the northeast, each in his characteristic firm and fluent drawing and bold colour. Barbara Rae goes even further north with two fine screenprints of the Arctic ice.

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Whether or not it has anything to do with being in isolation, Jo Ganter, whose work has always been very low key, has come out in bright colour in a set of watercolours composed of discs and circles much in the manner of Sonia Delaunay. Paul Furneaux, too, is a poet in abstract form and colour, but the way he uses Japanese woodblock printing to create layered veils of colour is uniquely his own.

There is much else to admire, but I was particularly struck by the classical elegance of two circular disks in porcelain, a white figure against a black ground by Michael Snowden. Equally classical, but nevertheless live and inventive is a group of works by Adrian Wiszniewski. His green-eyed radiologist is stunning. She too seems to be a figure for our times.

The Scottish Gallery has put online a similar anthology for the times. The title Great Scots in Isolation, though it names the occasion, does sound a little hyperbolic unless these days you are great just by being an artist. As our language and words like “great” are debased by the sham hyperbole of politics and advertising – the two scarcely distinguishable – it does sometimes seem that way. Were it so, it would really not be healthy.

Nevertheless, leaving aside questions of the absolute status and reputation of the 15 artists included, some of the work is undoubtedly very good.

The online show also includes a series of short films of them in isolation, but their work is really more illuminating. After all it should speak for itself, perhaps more than ever disembodied in cyberspace. Hugh Buchanan’s watercolours of a balustrade in Old College under extraordinary artificial illumination are remarkable. David Cass’s small seascapes on found supports of wood or card are lovely, too. Jonathan Christie’s drawings of classical buildings are memorable. They seem angular, but are also somehow fluent, rather as Ben Nicholson’s are. Matthew Draper has two of his lovely pastels of the stormy skies of the Western Isles. More unusual for him is a striking drawing of Auld Reekie in a Haar, the lights of the Old Town fuzzy in the mist. Lachlan Goudie’s Pines have a nostalgic feel. They conjure the sunlit world of Art Deco posters. Kate Downie’s monoprint Wild Garlic and Work Hands is bold and simple in the oriental manner, while Claire Harkness’s Bullfinches summarily drawn with the brush are a little peace of haiku.

Academicians in Isolation until 12 July,; Great Scots in Isolation until 20 June,

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