Visual art reviews: Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour | SSA 2011 | Visual Arts Scotland

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Societies have a special place in art and these latest exhibitions at the Royal Scottish Academy prove their role is more vital now than ever

• James Fairgrieve's Eggs, Bricks and Feathers





SIMPLY to list the artists in the three concurrent shows - the RSW, the SSA and VAS - would be enough to fill my column this week. All three shows are at the RSA. They are open submission, selected exhibitions, so a lot of artists have been turned away, too. Surely this all represents significant economic activity?

As I said in this column recently, for the added value that is the artist's return on a sale, an artwork takes some beating. But it cannot sell without a marketplace. These societies offer that, but their survival has been in question since the National Galleries of Scotland took over the RSA and they lost the right to exhibit there except at a cost greater than their earning power. The future is uncertain, but they cannot just go to the wall. The opportunity they offer is all the more important, too, now that the RSA - in response to the same pressure - no longer has open submission to its main annual show.

In any assessment of the economy, art should count, but there are signs that St Andrews House, taking its cue from Whitehall, regards the arts, and the humanities too, as non-productive. They and the politicians need a few lessons in history. When the modern West took shape, there were no scientists. There were only artists and thinkers with the divine gift of intellectual curiosity.

Earlier generations understood these things. The RSA was built with public money to house institutions that promoted them, including the Trustees Academy, parent of Edinburgh College of Art, the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Royal Society for the Promotion of the Fine Arts. It is ironic that the RSA was formed by the artists because, with the latter organisation in charge, then as now, contemporary art was pushed out of the exhibition rooms by old master shows. The artists eventually won possession, only to be pushed out a few years ago by the old masters once again, or their modern equivalent. The fund that built the RSA (and the National Galleries) was originally established to ameliorate the economic consequences of the Union for Scotland.

How topical that seems and for the reasons that prevailed then there is again case now for a new, independent exhibition space.The SSA and VAS have the main floor of the RSA. The RSW has the basement. All three have separate catalogues, but the two shows upstairs have one suite of numbers. It doesn't help in distinguishing one from the other that artists can submit to all three and indeed a good many have shown in more than one.

There are distinctions, however. Although there are ceramics and tapestry in the SSA too, the VAS has a notably strong craft element. There is some really good furniture, for example, a handsome table by John Galvin made of strips of hardwood, called Neapolitan Table after the ice-cream, I suppose, and a nice bedside cabinet with curved sides by John Johnston. Among the ceramics, Becca Wilson's Dirty Rotten Peaches are delightful. The eponymous fruits are metamorphosing into elegant female bottoms, sprouting gold leaves and other unmentionable things. There are other jokes, too. Julia Douglas's One Perfectly Good Bucket is a bucket with a hole in the bottom repaired with string. Tide Line is a beautiful tapestry in rich reds and blues by Fiona Hutcheson. There is also some pretty and moderately priced jewellery.

Between craft and sculpture, Jack Roots turns three elegant wooden, boat-shaped wall-cabinets into pea pods by adding green peas. Equally striking is Fiona Dean's I don't love you any more, a matt-black owl in a glass jar. While a collection of artists' books makes an installation by several artists, Geoff Mann's Crossfire is a major installation by an individual. The articles on a table set for a meal take distorted shapes in response to the violence of a domestic argument in the film American Beauty.

VAS includes more conventional art, too, striking drawings by Kate Downie and by Vincent Butler, for instance. Butler also has a beautiful bronze Bather. Joyce Gunn Cairns has made a print in memory of Edwin Morgan that combines a portrait with his poetry, but Linda Farquharson's Nightingale's Song is poetry without words, a decorative woodcut of two lovers in a wood beneath the Moon. Michael Youds has painted his boss, John Leighton, director general of the NGS. He looks as if budget cares weigh heavy, but maybe that shows it's a good portrait.

The SSA began as a breakaway from the RSA with the object of offering a space for young artists impatient with convention, and it has tried to keep that character. There are various pieces of installation art, a video by Alice Betts of dogs barking in a cardboard box, for example. A wonderful Moss Couch by Rosie Jones Newman is a sofa made of moss, just as its title says. It's a place for a country idyll, but the effect is a little spoiled by a label saying "Please do not sit". Jo McDonald's Revised Edition is a very beautiful wreath of paper and shiny thread.Nearby Unlocking the Sea by Fiona Hutchison (she is one of those showing in two places) is a lovely waterfall of shredded blue paper and what, I presume, is salt. If works like the latter might just be saleable, Katy Thomson's The Battle surely is not. It is a flimsy, but elaborate installation that includes toy soldiers, living plants and just about everything else. A work like this underlines how far art that has flourished under public subsidy has moved away from the market.

The SSA situation focuses very sharply the dilemma that poses. It is dependent on sales for its income, yet is trying to accommodate young artists straight from art school. There is much here to remind us, however, that art that does sell yields nothing to the unsaleable in quality. As always, one of the best works here is by Philip Reeves, a collage called Summer Beach. Elgin Overlooked is an intriguing set of small watercolours of forgotten and unexpected corners of that handsome Moray town. Tumim and Prendergast's Seventy-Three Leaves is simply a collection of leaves, exquisitely woven in tapestry. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly by George Collier is an ambitious, if enigmatic piece made with film strip etched on aluminium.

The fact that it is mostly limited to the watercolour in its title, doesn't seem to limit the RSW. On the contrary, it seems more focused. Perhaps there is something to be said for an art based on skill and there are good many examples of that here. David Evans' Small White Jug, for instance, and James Fairgrieve's Eggs, Bricks and Feather are both technically faultless, but they are beautiful, too, in their restraint.

The same is true of Angus McEwan's Just Pants, a line of washing in a window somewhere, and of Susan Mitchell's Inquisitive Guinea Fowl. Ann Ross's Compendium is a beautiful and poetic combination of collage and watercolour. All in subtle pinks and greys, it shows she can be really grand on a large scale. Catriona Mann also employs collage with drawing in an atmospheric study of Edinburgh Old Town.

Alison Dunlop's Inner Sound is a near abstract composition in sweeping blue shapes, but George Gilbert's Deserted Steading is a beautifully observed study of light on a crumbling building. Last Day is an atmospheric study of a fishing village in evening light, but with a heavenly portent in the sky above - the Apocalypse comes to Crail, perhaps. Finally the late Jack Firth, whose contribution to the arts was unobtrusive, but very real, is commemorated with his beautiful watercolour, the Blue House, Findochty.

• All until 3 March.