Art reviews: Visual Arts Scotland Annual Exhibition: ALIGHT | Adrian Wiszniewski RSA: not now

Work by Lisa Furno in ALIGHT at the RSA
Work by Lisa Furno in ALIGHT at the RSA
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Visual Arts Scotland’s show at the RSA mixes work in diverse media to impressive effect

Visual Arts Scotland Annual Exhibition: ALIGHT, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh ****

Adrian Wiszniewski RSA: not now, Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh ****

A long time ago, Visual Arts Scotland was the Society of Scottish Women Artists. Changing its identity more than once since then, it has evolved in a fascinating way. Of the three exhibiting societies that share the mid-winter slot at the RSA this year, it is now the most distinctive and with this year’s show more so than ever. It would be too simple to say that the main difference is that it includes craft. Certainly that is part of its mission. This year for instance, as well as the Open Selection – more of that in a moment – three artists, Naomi Mcintosh, Beth Legg and Charlotte Baker, have been sponsored by Craft Scotland under the heading “celebrates wood.” Naomi Mcintosh dominates the main room with Hirta, a flat-pack, wooden display space designed in collaboration with architect Bruce Brebner and designers Sam Booth and Maggie Savage. It is room-sized, but I was assured that it only took a couple of hours to assemble. Mcintosh also offers a group of ornamental constructions and necklaces made of tiny pieces of intricately cut wood, jigsaw puzzles in 3D. Charlotte Baker also has a dramatic presence in the main gallery with large clay pots on wooden stands. Beth Legg’s work is simpler. She brings out the inherent beauty of wood by decorating saw-cut pieces with gold and silver.

Another group of five artists represents the Inches Carr Monitoring Award which declares it purpose as “providing support for makers and craftspeople.” Among them, Charonne Ruth, for instance, makes beautiful, heavy glass objects with colour flowing through them as it does in glass marbles, while Ffion Blench explores the highly specialised traditional decorator’s craft of scagliola, imitation marble made from pigments, glue and plaster. The results are lovely.

There are also invited artists. Among them, Paul Keir has a spare, three-dimensional piece, a kind of drawing space, but composed of several different elements including a frame and a tall striped pole like a surveyor’s rod, all in white and Yves Klein blue. The effect is rather serene.

There is also a graduate showcase and this too includes some interesting work. Jack Handscombe, for instance, has made a sandcastle with real gothic pinnacles. An attendant mollusc, he proposes, “erodes the hubris of humanity” and more in that vein. Students are pushed too often towards words, but as here, the work tends to be better without them. Another recent graduate, Niklas Gustafson, has made rather a nice installation with tall, unframed inkjet printed landscapes and a remarkable two-dimensional cat.

In the Open Submission section there is more craft. Some of it is very beautiful. Tricia Thom’s moon jar and bowl for instance are quite outstanding. They have the true integrated harmony of thrown form, freedom of painting and depth and richness of glaze of classic ceramics. There is furniture and jewellery, too. Kate Morgan, for instance, has produced an angular chair in the style of that uncomfortable Modernist classic, the Reitveld chair. Some of the jewellery is very attractive, and some quite over the top in a delightful way. Hannah Louise Lamb has produced brooches that are based on landscape, for instance. There is also straightforward painting and printmaking. Susie Leiper has a beautiful abstract in blues and greys, both warm and cool. Lucilla Sim uses a similar palette to very different effect in a square composition of interlocking rectangles. Lyndsey Gilmour seems to pay homage to Giorgio Morandi in a delicate, almost ghostly still life in pinks and greys. David Brown paints simple images, but done in oil on paper, the saturation of the form and colour is very satisfying. Bronwen Sleigh’s geometric etchings are serenely beautiful.

What is most fascinating about this show is the way in which the lines are blurred, the crossovers and experiments where craft and art merge. Inge Panneels suggests the polished diameter of a hemisphere of dark glass is like a Claude glass, an 18th-century landscape painter’s device, reflecting the landscape, but then, in collaboration with Kevin Greenfield, presents it alongside an artist’s book open at a wide landscape. Gosia Walton fills a wall with a striking ten-part piece in jazzy colours made from near organic shapes of cut, engraved and rastered acrylic. (Rasterising is apparently to do with electronic grid patterns.) Michael Craik has made a beautiful object from a square of aluminium glazed with pink acrylic, Deborah Whyte an exquisite little sculpture apparently from white paper. Craig Coulthard has made what look like patchwork quilts except that being off-square they work more as collage or painting than conventional craft. Tapestry is usually a feature of this show and Kenris MacLeod’s Falling Summer, a rather beautiful woodland scene, qualifies, but otherwise the interest is more in the inventive use of textiles than traditional weaving. Stephanie Wilson, for instance, has a very long piece of gauzy fabric printed with half a figure as part of an installation that includes printed T-shirts on hangers. Most remarkable among the textiles, however, is an orange glow emanating from a simple hanging of illuminated nylon net by Maria Vigers.

It is altogether a very striking show, full of promise, but VAS and the other societies do face difficulties. The venue is expensive. That they have survived so long is a measure of their determination. They mount and man their shows themselves. The actual cost to the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS), not the accountant’s cost calculated in the abstract, cannot be that great. A friendly gesture would be for the common good and would surely be within the NGS’s brief. The economic advantage of investing in talent and innovation, indeed the urgent need to do so in these chaotic times, is beyond argument.

And speaking of talent, Adrian Wiszniewski, one of our old masters now, has a show at the Open Eye where he demonstrates that he is certainly not resting on his laurels, but is still innovating. A set of prints using the Japanese woodblock method are truly outstanding, but his simple drawings are also a revelation. There is something of Matisse in the purity of his line. Translated to his painting, as it is in simple heads, like the imaginary portraits of Boudicaa and of the Daughters of Boudicca, it has almost a neoclassical feel. On the other hand his big, exotic landscapes somehow balance this clarity with a sense of nature’s energy and luxurious growth. Remarkable. - Duncan Macmillan

ALIGHT until 22 February; Adrian Wiszniewski until 4 March