By dropping the constraints of a unifying theme, The RSA Annual Exhibition instead concentrates on showing great work
The RSA Annual Exhibition Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh ****
Marj Bond Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh ****
This year sees the 191st RSA Annual Exhibition. Some time ago now, however, the Academy abandoned open submission, the arrangement that had prevailed through most of nearly two centuries. Instead they opted for a kind of hybrid between a members only exhibition and a curated show with a theme to hold it together, however loosely. This didn’t always work terribly well, however, and the themes were not always very convincing or even intelligible. Perhaps recognising this, the convener this year, Marian Leven, has opted for a much simpler arrangement, just members and a handful of invited artists. With no theme to muddy the waters, she has been able to put together a clean and strikingly spacious show with room for strong representation by individuals. Doug Cocker, for instance, occupies a whole wall with Ex Ovo. Nominally it is a single work, but it has 80 constituent parts. Each one is a distinct and individual sculpture made of wood. Without repetition or, it seems, even hesitation, it is a tour de force of invention. No one else can quite match this level of productivity – and Cocker also has two other smaller multiples elsewhere in the show. Glen Onwin comes close, however. He dominates the east wall of the central gallery with Twofold Trinity, Sulphur – Carbon with three parts, and Expulsion from the Garden – Desertification, two characteristically richly coloured and textured works apparently evolved through some kind of chemical reaction. Each constituent part of both works is either two and a half metres high or two and a half wide. Onwin also has three smaller works downstairs including a particularly lovely piece in intense blue, Airy Salt. At the opposite end of the central gallery Barbara Rae is as assertive with Shoreline, a very fine big red picture that combines painting and collage and is nearly three metres high.
Convener Marian Leven has a group of cloudy abstract paintings aptly named Haars and Smirrs. Downstairs she also has a group of rather beautiful studies, somewhere between clouds, sea and horizon, and abstraction. In a series of richly worked prints and paintings, Sam Ainsley shifts between the abstract and the organic. Leon Morrocco has two big and very fine pictures on a maritime theme. Anchors and Floats at the entrance is a bow-on view of a rusty red boat. With massive anchors and several floats it fills the canvas. The other picture also shows the bow of a boat, but with figures and a horizon beyond. Both pictures are beautifully drawn and painted with what seems almost a gritty surface. The result is a very satisfying sense of monumentality.
Two particularly ambitious works are collaborations. PRSA Arthur Watson and Ian Howard, Academy Secretary, have jointly produced a magnificent printed work, a large-scale folio or book on the theme of the Devil and the Devil’s Ground, those parts of agricultural land that are left uncultivated to allow passage for Old Nick and which perhaps preserve, unrecognised some forgotten pre-Christian sanctity. Will Maclean and John Burnside have also produced a folio publication with poetry by Burnside and images to match by Maclean, 19th-century prints and illustrations collaged together in a stormy mix reminiscent of Max Ernst.
Two pairs of old, white painted window shutters enhanced with little patches of primary colour by Michael Docherty are both simple and satisfying. So are two still lifes, Table for a Shaman and Quiet Place, by Jake Harvey, carved from a beautifully grained and very hard grey granite. For sheer beauty, however, a set of atmospheric wash drawings by Mary Bourne certainly stand out. So, however, do etchings composed of veils of soft colour like sheets of torn paper by guest artist Amy Gear. Keiko Mukaide, also a guest artist, creates something equally beautiful, painting with light. She composes exquisitely with fragments of pale coloured glass, but also with the light passing through them. Mat Fahrenholz, also an invited artist, makes miniature boxes like the rooms of a dolls’ house; sometimes they seem straightforward, sometimes more enigmatic. In Ego, for instance, a shiny white egg inscribed with the words Et In Arcadia Ego sits beside a minute photograph of a woman feeding hens. Julie Brook takes land art to the desert in a series of striking photographs of her intervention in wide, arid, but by no means colourless North African landscapes.
It is good to see Henry Kondracki’s work recognised. He is such a good painter of modern Edinburgh as several works here, large and small, bear witness and is now RSA Elect. Stuart Mackenzie’s big oil drawings of fish are very striking too, but with 250 works occupying the whole of both levels of the RSA there is also much else to admire.
Marj Bond has been a figure in Scottish painting for many years. She produces decorative, richly coloured and often also richly textured paintings and prints. Their structure is symbolist, veering towards abstraction. Working from something seen, remembered, or simply imagined, her inspiration is often exotic, reflecting travels to India, Mexico and elsewhere. Now she is the subject of a monograph by Martine F Pugh. It sets out her development as a painter and traces her career from early days in the 60s through time spent as a pioneering curator of the Fair Maid Gallery in Perth to the present as a busy and productive artist living in Fife.
Publication of this book is marked by an exhibition at the Open Eye. Without being a full retrospective, it does include work ranging back to 1970. Generally she seems to favour a square format. Always decorative, it also gives to her pictures a kind of independent existence. They become self-sufficient objects rather than representations of something else. This is even more apparent when, as she frequently does, she uses richly textured handmade paper. In Moon and Sun, for instance, or Celtic Bride and Groom, not only is the surface of the paper rough, but the edges are left ragged too. She also uses patterns like mosaic, or stained glass in pictures like Black on Pink and Blue Fishtrap and this recalls the abstractions of School of Paris painters like Manessier. She also translates this same patterning into landscapes like Black Ice and Pink Kasbah. Perhaps more broadly the way she uses symbols derived from ethnographic art also has something in common with Alan Davie. Night Kerala from 2005 and some of her earlier work in the monograph, however, also show her steering closer to John Bellany. In the end though her pictures are her own. All about shape, surface and colour, they are votives, precious objects like the totems that so often inspire them.
RSA Annual Exhibition until 7 May; Marj Bond until 17 April. Marj Bond by Martine F Pugh is published by Sansom & Company, £30