The SSA Annual Exhibition is still offering the art scene something different in its 121st year, writes Duncan Macmillan
Society of Scottish Artists Annual Exhibition, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh ****
The Edinburgh School and Wider Circle, Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh ****
The Society of Scottish Artists’ Annual Exhibition has an open submission policy and this year’s statistics give some idea of the demand that this meets. There are around 230 works in this, the 121st annual show, but that is just one tenth of the total submission of more than 2,000. Selection is now done online, so it no longer involves the physical handling of works. It is nevertheless a big challenge and regrettably all just for the few short weeks of exhibition time the exhibiting societies are allowed by the National Galleries of Scotland, or can afford. The exhibited works represent about 100 artists, but that figure does not include the numerous, unframed, small works which the society’s members are entitled to send in to be displayed in racks.
The SSA began as a protest against the perceived stuffy conservatism of the Royal Scottish Academy. In recent years the RSA itself has moved to occupy a rather similar place in the art ecology, but there is plenty of room and the SSA manages to keep its distinctive character. Open submission, for instance, which the RSA has abandoned for its own major annual show, is important. The SSA also maintains its commitment to the young and to its international links. Some of the most striking works in this year’s show, for instance, are by invited new graduates. A large and enigmatic shiny orange box called Koan by Pip Denham, conspicuous in the sculpture court has won a New Graduate Award, for example. The same artist’s Paean II is equally striking. Nancy Dewhurst has also won a New Graduate Award for her delightful Clepsydra, a demonstration – with audience participation – of the principle of the water clock, with two examples; one a rather beautifully made wooden washstand, the other a more prosaic zinc bath.
Prism Print is an international printmakers’ cooperative and in keeping with the longstanding internationalism of the SSA this organisation has been invited to contribute to the show. Striking among their contributions are two large prints by Haruko Cho. Obscurely described as “piezograph on lokta” paper, they do rather suggest Bagpuss has been crossed with a möbius strip, but are impressive all the same. Untitled Series no 11 by Zhang Minjie shows a catwalk as a dance of death in a weird and crowded dystopia. Norman McBeath, who in his own work has pioneered a wonderful convergence of printmaking and photography, is the link with Prism. He is represented by a photogravure with added gold leaf of a sacred ibis, titled enigmatically Maintainer of the Universe.
Striking black and white woodcuts of baobab trees in a deserted landscape by Ade Adesina are also the product of an international collaboration, an exchange with Engramme, a print workshop in Quebec. As Munch did to such effect, in her prints she exploits beautifully the patterns of the grain of the wood.
What is apparently the SSA’s principle award goes to Jörg Oberfell. A German photographer with an international profile, he is represented by a couple of hundred portraits of Japanese garden sheds — Last of the Summer Wine Japanese style, but without the people.
There are also a lot of striking individual works, some by old hands, others less familiar. Paul Furneaux, for instance, now a veteran printmaker, never disappoints. Black Rain: Shelter is in his familiar Japanese woodcut technique, but then the print is coated with resin, giving it depth and texture like a ceramic. Marta Adamowicz’s Harbour is also a woodcut, but in contrast to the refinement of Furneaux’s technique, it is printed on rough-textured banana paper to suggest the crude strength of 18th or 19th-century popular broadsheets. Haneen is a pile of rusty keys, beautifully made from earthenware by Leena Namari. The title means “yearning” – a reference to the yearning of the many Palestinians who keep the keys of their former homes as talismans of their hope of return. It is one of history’s tragic ironies that when the Jews were driven out of Israel in the original diaspora nearly 2,000 ago, they too kept the keys of their homes in hope of return: two wrongs never made a right. The same artist’s Biblical Jenga, a stack of blocks of olive wood and bronze, is a delightful small sculpture.
One of the most simply beautiful works here is a big abstract by Susie Leiper with translucent white washed across grey and brown: mist on the mountains perhaps. Supr Me, a pair of hot water bottles in Yves Klein blue and cast in bronze by Emily Coulson is another remarkable work among many in this excellent show.
At the Scottish Gallery, The Edinburgh School and Wider Circle is another attempt – there have been several in years gone by – to identify a distinct Edinburgh School. It is accompanied by a substantial catalogue illustrated, not only with the works included, but also with fascinating historical photographs. Key to the whole is a photo, from the academic year of 1949-50, of the staff and students of Edinburgh College of Art together in front of the College building. Many of the leading figures of post-war Scottish art are identified: William Gillies, Robin Philipson, David Michie, David McClure, Gordon Bryce, John Houston, Frances Walker, James Cumming, Denis Peploe, Penelope Beaton, Robert Henderson Blyth and others, though apparently not Elizabeth Blackadder, although she was a student at the time. It was a golden generation, but as the show’s title suggests, the Edinburgh School was not limited to the college community of that era, but also includes earlier graduates like Sir William MacTaggart, Anne Redpath, Perpetua Pope, William Wilson, Adam Bruce Thomson and Alan Davie and indeed one later graduate, John Bellany.
Davie, William Gear and Eduardo Paolozzi, all Edinburgh students, were key figures in the British realignment with European modernism after the war. Their contemporary, Margaret Mellis, was also a fascinating artist. She and Gear are only present in photographs, however. Paolozzi is wholly absent. Only Davie is actually in the show, represented by a single work. Wilhelmina Barnes-Graham, on the other hand, with a dozen works, has more than anybody else. This reflects the energy of the Barnes-Graham Trust promoting her, I feel, rather than her actual importance. She is much less significant than Gear, for instance, or indeed Walker, who is not included either. Blyth and Bryce both went to teach in Aberdeen just as she did. Both are included, but she is not. William Johnstone, Gillies’s contemporary, is represented by two works, but he would I think have questioned his inclusion. He wanted to teach at the college when he returned to Scotland in the 1950s, but it didn’t work out. Perhaps he was too radical for them.
One can forgive any historical inconsistency, however, as there are some lovely works here, a powerful early John Houston drawing, for instance, an equally fine drawing by Blackadder, a couple of poetic paintings by McClure, a lovely
picture of flowers at a window by Pope, one of Philipson’s magnificent late flower paintings, and much more besides.
The Society of Scottish Artists Annual Exhibition runs until 17 January; The Edinburgh School and Wider Circle runs until 26 January