Art reviews: RSA Annual Exhibition | JD Fergusson 150

Well organised and sensitively hung, this year’s Annual Exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy looks cool and coherent in spite of the huge number of works on display, writes Duncan Macmillan

The 198th RSA Annual Exhibition, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh *****

JD Fergusson 150, The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh ****

If you were to suppose that a big exhibition with several hundred works by almost as many artists and which includes a substantial open submission is an irrelevance in this day and age, the RSA Annual proves you wrong. This year’s show is the 198th – the Academy’s bicentenary is approaching fast. As big as ever, the show occupies the whole of the exhibition space on both floors of the building that bears the Academy’s name. The works are in all possible media and are on the walls and on the floor. The show also includes two galleries devoted to architecture. Remarkably, thanks to very thoughtful hanging, this mass of diverse works ranging in size from the enormous to the tiny looks cool and coherent. This coherence is the work of Wendy McMurdo RSA, convenor in charge of the hanging this year. She and her team have achieved this in various ways. Where possible, for instance, several works by the same artist have been hung together. Sometimes, too, works have been grouped by a loose thematic link, or simply by a broader visual affinity. Individual juxtapositions have been carefully thought about too, and so in spite of the number of exhibits, it works. McMurdo is herself represented by a group of photographs. Three, called Pollinators, suggest vividly the energy that drives the growth of plants.

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Installation view of the 198th Annual Exhibition at The Royal Scottish Academy of Art and Architecture PIC: Julie HowdenInstallation view of the 198th Annual Exhibition at The Royal Scottish Academy of Art and Architecture PIC: Julie Howden
Installation view of the 198th Annual Exhibition at The Royal Scottish Academy of Art and Architecture PIC: Julie Howden

As you enter through the Sculpture Court, you are greeted by Kenny Hunter’s now classic Feedback Loop, a figure of a Japanese teenager standing pretty much in the pose of the Statue of Liberty, but raising a bunch of flowers instead of a torch. The flowers are pink against the figure’s monochrome. The teenager’s baggy clothes are at once conformist within her group and radically nonconformist against the world at large, hence perhaps the enigmatic title.

Also in the Sculpture Court to your right is a fantastic dragon, the work of invited artist Rae-Yen Song, that seems to have strayed from a Chinese New year celebration. Going through to the central gallery the wall facing you is dominated by a text piece by Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead, also invited artists. It is a collection of a hundred or so texts printed in large white letters on red and on black. A mix of the trivial and the political, with a bearing on contemporary politics and living in Scotland, apparently these texts are all collected from the internet.

The end wall to the left is dominated by another piece that is also principally text. By invited artist Helen de Main, We Want the Moon consists of four hanging banners and a collection of campaigning slogans, cartoons, documents and ephemera mounted on screens in front of them. All are screen-printed and reflect women’s struggles and campaigns, from the suffragettes to the present day. In front of this Edward Summerton’s Let’s Swap Children is an array of caricature faces somehow created to look as though they were the patterns revealed in the cross-section of a block of agate. On the wall nearby, is a splendid example of one of Robbie Bushe’s thousand-figure phantasmagorias. Called People and Money, it shows the University of Edinburgh’s Old College and the adjacent bridges from the air, the roofs and walls peeled back to reveal all the goings on within. At the other end of the gallery, Simon Page’s ink drawing End of Babel deploys a similar Brueghel-like perspective, but to portray a once-aspiring world in ruins. On the wall nearby two beautiful screen prints of snowy hillsides by Victoria Crowe present a reflective and very different poetry. So too does a very fine large, square painting by Leon Morrocco of a house facade in Nice.

Among sculptures arranged around the floor nearby, Deirdre Nicholls’ pink lamb on a green plinth has a very positive presence and you can see why it has been adopted as a signature image for the show. Painted in in Yves Klein blue, Charles Young’s memorial to the Netherbow Port, an Edinburgh city gate taken down in 1764, is equally vivid in colour. On the way into the gallery beyond is a striking group of small bronze mummer figures by Tim Shaw.

Learning to Sing by Alfons Bytautas at the RSA Annual Exhibition PIC: RSALearning to Sing by Alfons Bytautas at the RSA Annual Exhibition PIC: RSA
Learning to Sing by Alfons Bytautas at the RSA Annual Exhibition PIC: RSA

Ross Sinclair’s big work Years of Real Life 1994-2024 T-Shirt Paintings dominates the western gallery at the back. A wall of his slogan T-shirts, it is like a single-work retrospective. In contrast, the facing wall is hung with paintings of faces, either small portraits or just studies of faces, but sympathetically hung together. On the floor, Steven Skrynka’s Clusterf*** is an ingenious, three-dimensional rendering in wood of that neologism so apt to modern politics.

Dead or Alive (Conversations with Joan), a spectacular big red painting by Kate Downie, presides over the eastern gallery. Nearby Francis Convery’s Angus Flood is equally fiery in colour. Evidently inspired by the recent catastrophic floods in Angus, the dominant red – not an obvious colour for water – seems to stand for destruction. Two works by Kate Whiteford and a figure in a red shirt by Adrian Wiszniewski continue this red theme. In Directed by John Ford, Henry Kondracki goes to the cinema to watch a Western, while Ian McCulloch’s Argonaut shows that the veteran artist has lost none of his fire.

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Elsewhere are a number of straightforward landscapes, including two beautiful low-key prints of the sea and the distant Bass Rock by John McKechnie and two watercolours by Richard Elliott. It is not quite landscape, but Alex Allan has delicately painted the inside of an upended, industrial wooden pallet to create what he has called an Urban Pastoral. Among paintings, Rowan Paton’s semi-abstract Where the Good People Go Who Cannot Stay is particularly lovely. Very different, but equally successful is a humble plastic chair that Fiona Goss has turned into something poetic by wreathing it with plaited palm leaves, while Sarah Robertson has cast an exquisite lily pad in bronze. Elspeth Lamb’s The Falls is a really beautiful image using printed woodgrain for the falling water.

Some of the walls in the lower galleries have been painted black, others in various colours. Daisy Doig’s Alcoholic, a figure drawn in blue neon, stands out against black while sinister twins holding hands in Heather Nevay’s Thicker than Water look very spooky against bright green. Green also suits Norman McBeth’s eloquent photographic prints of withered leaves. Nearby, Hugh Buchanan’s print Moonlit Window, ingeniously but effectively done on corduroy, has all the luminous mystery of the paintings of Vilhelm Hammershøi. On the floor, Mary Bourne and Lynne Strachan have brought contrasting light and dark into sculpture by creating axe-heads in cast glass and stone, polished black. The axe-heads are modern in form, but rendered in polished stone, they echo the beautiful axes so valued by our prehistoric ancestors.

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Hello Dolly, by Deirdre Nicholls PIC: RSAHello Dolly, by Deirdre Nicholls PIC: RSA
Hello Dolly, by Deirdre Nicholls PIC: RSA

There is a great deal more and much to admire in this diverse and well-organised show. It also demonstrates how far the RSA has come since the time of the Colourist JD Fergusson. It was very conservative then, and he would have nothing to do with it, nor it with him, but I am sure he would have found it more sympathetic now.

Fergusson is topical because, born in 1874, 9 March marked his 150th anniversary and the Scottish Gallery is presenting a small show of his work. It consists mostly of drawings. There are always vivid and vigorous, but it also includes a group of his remarkable small sculptures. These seem to date from the years he spent in London after the outbreak of the First World War. Much influenced by Gauguin, these are nevertheless highly original and it is fascinating to see a group like this.

198th RSA Annual Exhibition until 16 June; JD Fergusson 150 until 1 June

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