Visual arts review: Spirit of artistic adventure

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THE Society of Scottish Artists was the first organisation to show the paintings of Edvard Munch in the UK. The exhibition of the Norwegian expressionist, in Edinburgh in 1931, sparked a storm in the letters page of this newspaper. No stranger to controversy, the SSA also brought Matisse and Picasso here, determined to inspire home-grown artists with the best work from the continent.

In these days of the Internet and cheap travel, there is less need for that, but the pioneering spirit of the SSA continues in its readiness to support the work of emerging artists, and to embrace those working in a wide range of media.

This year, the three artists' organisations which normally show in the RSA building in spring have had to find new spaces. The SSA, sharing the Vision Building in Dundee with Duncan of Jordanstone's very successful degree show, is much better served where it is. Creating enough space for works hung on walls has been a challenge, but the sculptures have room to breathe, as do the viewers – with 250 works on show, you might need it.

Works by invited artists such as Will Maclean, Marian Leven and the late John Houston help raise the game. Barbara Rae, a former SSA president, shows a large painting titled Urban Decay in which her typical vigorous colours swirl like graffiti against abstracted tower blocks. Expanding Forms No 1 (Lemon), one of several works from the estate of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, is an elegant exploration of pure colour and form.

Calum Colvin shows two portraits of Byron, each reflected in a cube of mirrors mounted between them, for this is a man whose image comes down to us through a glass darkly, muddied by his work and the legend that grew around him. Meanwhile, Dundee-based Dalziel + Scullion show two sculptures of tree trunks, a three-dimensional expression of their digital prints of tree bark, and part of their ongoing vivid depiction of the natural world.

There is evidence of thoughtful hanging: Maclean's Portrait of a Polymath vitrines, combining natural and mathematical images, harmonise with Gayle Nelson's Glass-bottom boat, in which images of water and marine creatures are printed on perspex ovals, which in turn speaks gently to Liz Douglas's Ettrick series: Moth Light.

Meanwhile, there is an attempt to capture the collaborative spirit of the SSA in Juteopolis, which features 120 small wooden cubes around which different artists have created work responding to the city of Dundee. They are installed in rows like the cobbles in the "lade" of a jute mill (though Peter Russell's Dundee skyscraper towers eight-fold above the rest).

It is a generous, cheerful project in which the most famous aspects of the city are represented, from jute and newspapers to Keiller's marmalade, from William McGonagall to Dennis the Menace.

The long windows of the Vision Building look out towards the Tay, and – deliberately or not – there are various works here which play on a nautical theme.

Seascapes are ubiquitous: Will Maclean's work always has a whiff of the sea about it, Ian Finan shows a delightful pod of beluga whales mounted on canvas – each with a different expression – and Kenny Munro has made a giant limpet.

Catriona Taylor's model of a steamship, covered by extracts from the letters of those who left Scotland in the Clearances, is a reminder that not every passage is an easy one, and water is also a dominant image in Richard Ashrowan's Lament, surprisingly, the only video work in the show.

If the more experimental installation and electronic work is absent this year, it is compensated for by a strong and interesting sculptural component. Linda Masson's A Complex Being succinctly captures the way in which we show a different face to everyone we meet. Stephen Paterson's St Anthony (after Tony Morrow) is a striking bronze head, a modern twist on a traditional style. Charmian Pollok's Ghost Croft series use found objects and wire to create evocative assemblages. Helen Denerley delights, as she always does, with a crocodile and an amur leopard made from recycled metals.

Another guest artist, Philip Reeves, leads a strong abstract contingent, closely followed by the contrasting works of Christopher Wood and Richard Strachan. 27-year-old Frank To, who is making his name as a figurative painter, takes the opportunity to return to abstraction for the first time in four years with the engaging Yggdrasil, which scooped the Deloitte LLP prize.

Other highlights include a drawing by Joyce Gunn Cairns, a magical group of works by Nan Mulder, photographs by Norman McBeath, two engaging oils by Leo du Feu; vigorous drawings by Kate Downie, and the beautiful words-and-images prints of Brigid Collins. David Faithfull's prints, Bear Market/Bull Market and Bull Market/Bear Market sum up the economic situation, surely as tough on artists as on anyone else.

Humour is welcome in these difficult times, and there is an abundance of that too. Anton Beaver's A Box of Spuds is exactly what it says it is. His clever little mirror piece is cheekily titled Man's Rays. Margaret Bathgate's photographs follow her knitting on adventures through Fife. Tim Taylor has made a totem pole out of lampshades. Gemma Coyle's caravans made of biro pens, spinning slowly on their plinths, are bettered only by her scale model of the Chrysler building, pulled by horses through a desert on the floor.

The impulse which once brought Munch and Matisse to Scotland continues through the SSA's commitment to exhibiting the work of young artists picked from last year's degree shows. Georgina Porteous and Mark Creaney, both from Moray School of Art, work with medical images: Creaney with syringes (that contradictory implement of both addiction and medicine) and Porteous making a disturbing "chandelier" from gynaecological instruments.

Tielia Dellanzo's black ribbon printed with the words "Edge of Belonging", hangs from the ceiling, pooling on the floor.

Rowan Corkhill, whose work stood out at the Duncan of Jordanstone degree show last year, continues to use old found photographs, mounting them on light boxes so that light glows from pin-pricks. The rows of young cadets and ladies at a WI-style luncheon appear at the same time more ghostly and more alive.

Until 19 June.