Art review: 189th RSA Annual Exhibition, Edinburgh

Kenny Hunter - 'Day after Day' depicts oversized white seagulls sitting on a raft. Picture: Contributed
Kenny Hunter - 'Day after Day' depicts oversized white seagulls sitting on a raft. Picture: Contributed
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The Royal Scottish Academy exhibition has an emphasis on classically-minded work, but with a welcome surreal bent, writes Duncan Macmillan

189th RSA Annual Exhibition

Royal Scottish Academy

Rating: * * * *

This is the RSA’s 189th annual exhibition. When the first one opened its doors, George IV was on the throne. It’s quite a record. There are 350 works in the show this year. It sounds a lot, but in the past there have often been twice that many and more in the annual show, so if you do a sum, it might come to something not far short of 100,000 works of art brought before the public over nearly two centuries. Without going completely off the point, you could also reflect on the man and woman hours of effort that number represents. It is a staggering collective investment in the two-fold business of making art and making a market for it. Over that time, however, the character of the annual show has changed almost as much as the character of the art. It was once a massed assembly of gold-framed pictures hung without a gap from floor to lofty ceiling with, in addition, bronze and marble sculpture filling up the floor space. Now without a single gold frame in sight, it is sparely hung, mostly at eye level and with lots of clean white wall.

It was in the past always an open submission exhibition, but that too has changed. This was partly because of time pressure. The complex business of selecting and administering an open submission took up too much of the precious time now available to the RSA in the galleries that bear their name, but it is also true that a big, heterogenous exhibition is old-fashioned and unwieldy. People expect more focus and so a new formula was devised. One member has always been chosen as convenor with overall responsibility for the hang of the annual show. This is still the case, and all the members of the Academy are still entitled to show, but to mitigate the closed shop effect this might have, the convenor has been given the additional responsibility of inviting guest artists. This is not intended to be simply a random group of the artist’s friends, but rather to create a focused theme within the wider display of members’ work. However, while this way of working does enliven the exhibition, the exact logic of the show within a show has never been readily discernible. It provides more a general leavening than a visible discipline. Alan Robb is this year’s convenor and he has called his show within a show Realised. The invited artists are both academicians and non-academicians and he has also included some historical works. His chosen artists are, he says, “all concerned with different kinds of image making and could be described as imagists with attitude. Drawings, paintings, prints and sculpture reflect on war, religion and myth, on folk culture, consumerism and the environment, on the joy of life and the inevitability of death.” He hasn’t missed much out then.

His own work is figurative and symbolic. A large self-portrait posing in front of Poussin’s highly classical Landscape with the Burial of Phocion and holding a model of Palladio’s Villa Rotonda is a pretty clear indication of where he stands. He is a classicist. He extends that too by adding to the contemporary work on show several paintings by James Cowie, one of the most classically minded modern Scottish artists. But Cowie had a metaphysical, even surrealist dimension to his work. Robb has also borrowed two striking works by Edward Burra, Cowie’s contemporary and one of the strangest and most original English Surrealists. Thus he sets a theme of figurative painting with a classical theme, but enlivened by a surrealist sense of strangeness. Some of his chosen artists fit this rather well. Others less so. Star billing is given to Michael Sandle. A dozen of his bronzes of car tyres, machinery and bombs that look like Mickey Mouse occupy much of the Sculpture Court. He has a reputation, but the war theme of his khaki coloured bronzes seems a bit sententious and overblown. Julie Roberts’s tightly painted figures in various kinds of medical restraint, or indeed actually deceased, also seem too relentlessly lugubrious. Kenny Hunter’s Day After Day with oversized white seagulls sitting on a raft is equally strange, but has a lighter touch. His seagulls are good company for Adrian Wiszniweski’s enigmatic and beautifully painted figure compositions. In fact, beautiful execution is key to the work of many Robb’s chosen artists. Elaine Wilson’s beautifully made porcelain figures are a good example. They look like ornaments except that the nicely dressed ladies threaten us with guns.These figures are arranged in a group and it is also a striking feature of the hang that artists have been given space to make a statement in this way. The impact of David Evans’s minutely painted and eerily still townscapes and of Neil McPherson’s brightly coloured dream figures is much greater for their being seen with a wall to themselves.

Ian Howard’s dreams are set in a strange, topsy turvy Renaissance world full of intriguing details, while Gordon Mitchell’s paintings are set in the unpredictable world of Magritte. For both artists clarity of execution holds the key and Mitchells’ Night Moves is particularly well realised. A figure emerges out of the pattern in a broken pavement to embrace two windows, one revealing, the other concealing a brilliantly lit world beyond. The star of this part of the exhibition, however, is Heather Nevay. Her execution, too, is exquisite and it gives real impact to the weirdness of The King’s Daughter, for instance, a naked girl with an intense stare and Lady Godiva hair standing against the scarlet walls of an out-of-scale, Alice-in-Wonderland interior.

There is, also, much to be commended in the rest of the show. Here too the hang has been sensitive, giving work the space it needs. Leon Morrocco’s three big, matching canvasses of boats make a real impact hung together with a wall to themselves. So do 24 collages by Doug Cocker treated as a single work. Stuart McKenzie’s outsize, black and white images of owls and fish are really impressive as a group, while three big panels by Glen Onwin make a triptych of red, blue and green. Their texture and vivid colour are apparently achieved by chemical reaction and several small panels by the same artist using this technique are also very beautiful. For poetic presence, Will Maclean’s work always repays contemplation. His Memory Board is a totem or reliquary shaped like a rudder and inscribed with the names of boats, of places, fish and people. For strangeness, too, work outside the themed show is often as striking as work that’s in it. John Mooney’s straight-faced visual puns, for instance, are as imagist as anything chosen for having that character, while Andrew Cranston’s Thinking Inside the Box seems to enjoy a joke at Julie Roberts’s expense. A naked model on a couch in the middle of a huge space is just like one of her figures except that the model is very much alive. Defying the humourless conventions of the life class she is looking distinctly aroused as a man impassively inspects her abandoned pose. The class with their easels are ranged round the edge at a safe distance. For sheer impact, the strangeness of a group of small paintings by Ian McCulloch with metamorphic shapes and figures intercutting each other as though in dream are as powerful as anything else in the show. While for classical poise, Philip Reeves is as always unmatched. His Vertical Window collage with panels of muted violet, grey and ochre is a poem of pure seeing. Poussin might have been proud of it.

Until 3 June