Big Societies: Why Scottish painters deserve better

Another Day in Feegie II by John Byrne is on display
Another Day in Feegie II by John Byrne is on display
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Three professional bodies – which represent artists who create the kind of work people actually want to own – deserve better than being crammed together into one building for a few weeks each year. By Duncan Macmillan

THE Society of Scottish Artists (SSA), the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour (RSW) and Visual Arts Scotland (VAS) are once again exhibiting together in the Royal Scottish Academy. Some time ago the three societies got together to form the Exhibiting Societies of Scottish Artists (ESSA), an umbrella organisation to negotiate for the venue and raise money to help cover the cost. They are holding an auction later in the year to try to secure the rent for the RSA next year, but nothing is certain. The cost is high, but that in turn also limits them to a short month of exhibition time which, in a vicious circle, limits their earnings. It’s worth remembering that the building we call the RSA was originally known simply as “the Building for the Societies”. They were different societies to those that now need space, no doubt, but the intention was clear. The building was for general cultural use and was to be inclusive. The National Galleries of Scotland, which now runs the venue, should not sit by complacently if any of these societies were to go to the wall. Nor indeed should Edinburgh City Council. In Glasgow the Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts (RGI) rents the Mitchell Library from the city for a more manageable rent, as it takes the space on its own, and for quite a long period.

Will Maclean is showing a video made in collaboration with Andy Rice

Will Maclean is showing a video made in collaboration with Andy Rice

These are all are professional organisations. They matter. Other kinds of art make the news, win the Turner Prize and get the shows in the National Gallery, but frankly that is not the kind of art people want to see, even less is it art that they could conceivably want to buy and have in their homes. There is a disjunction in our collective taste. Artists make art that other people want to buy and indeed do buy, but our institutions ignore it. That makes the exhibiting societies all the more important, but there can be no doubt that it has also made their position more difficult. They are not seen, in that ridiculous cant phrase, as cutting-edge – as though art was a cheese slicer and history a cheese. What the societies do is provide a place where artists can show alongside one another, senior cheek-by-jowl with junior, always a healthy stimulus, and where artists who may have no other outlet can show their work. The gallery situation is far better than it used to be, notably outside the Central Belt, but there is still more demand than supply, and it is a chance for galleries to find artists they might not otherwise know about.

The annual exhibitions used to be major events in the art calendar. They had the whole RSA space to themselves. There is a little more space than there used to be, but it is nevertheless cramped accommodation for all three societies to show at once. This year it is the SSA’s turn to have the downstairs. It’s the short straw because the ceilings are low and the rooms are small. They have in consequence imposed a size limit, although the show also includes several installations. Alan Bond has made a set of wooden columns and capitals inspired by the building. Jean Floyed, an invited graduate artist from Moray College, has made a space you go inside,where the inner walls are covered with Miró-inspired eyes. Anne Corrance Monk is also from Moray College and her installation is part of a giant Scrabble game. Gillian Mairi Alexander’s Woman with Strawberry Laces for Hair is technically an installation as it seems to be a digital photo screen, but the effect is very striking.

There are old masters here too, of course, or at least older masters and mistresses. Philip Reeves’s collage, Journey to Staffin, is elegantly minimal. Norman McBeath has two very fine photographs. Paul Furneaux’s print Sand Garden Moss is a satisfying composition of rectangles and muted colours. Joan Doerr’s Barrier to Black is expressively abstract in black, white and grey. Tiina Leppanen’s Tidal I and II are simple grids, but freely brushed on absorbent paper so they come alive. Nan Mulder’s print of Lotus Flowers is bold and simple. Orkney Geo by Anne Russell is a very fine etching showing the communion of Orkney’s geology with its seas and sky. Sarah Green’s Ignorance is No Excuse is a freely painted portrait of a woman with a paper bag over her head. June Carey’s Different Choices is a big, impressive drawing of a woman against the sky laden with symbols of the choices she must make.

In the upper galleries, VAS has the eastern half of the galleries, the RSW the western. A big red painting by Barbara Rae hangs at the top of the stairs. It belongs to the VAS show, but stands as a greeting to both. Though the numbers are much the same, VAS always seems more crowded, because it still accommodates the crafts. There is furniture, for instance, including a handsome pair of Canoe Benches by Angus Ross and a chair by Paul Mowbray called Entasis, although the entasis is so extreme it looks bow-legged. There are artist’s books including a beautiful one by Susie Leiper who also has a big painting called Earthquake, elegantly decorated with texts from the Book of Revelations. Craigneen Door by Roland Fraser is a composition of driftwood fitted together as neatly as a parquet floor. Andrea Geile is an invited artist who has made model pylons supporting a proposal that, as they are made redundant by the monstrous new Beauly-Denny pylons, the old pylons should be used, as shipwrecks are under the sea, as wildlife havens. Natalie Taylor has made a beautiful tapestry of Jacques le Moyne de Morgues’s 16th-century painting of a tattooed Pictish girl, except that she has given her a skull for a face, which seems a little wanton.

Marian Leven and Will Maclean preside as invited artists, she with a painting in veils of white and he with a hypnotic video. The late Bob Callendar is commemorated here, as he is at the SSA, with one of his extraordinary sculptures, a pair of sea doors so meticulously rendered that they look like the real thing.

The RSW is always the most coherent of these shows because it sticks to the script. It is a watercolour society and that is what it shows. Though that may seem unfashionable, the consequent constraint is only beneficial. Here is a lovely big watercolour of Langdale Pikes by Derek Clarke, doyen of Scottish art. John Bellany and John Byrne, once wild young men, are both seniors now, too, though not quite up with Derek Clarke who is approaching his century. Bellany’s watercolours have always been brilliant and here he paints a mother and child against a troubled sky. Byrne remembers his youth in Paisley with a picture of two fearsome looking teddy boys molesting an equally fearsome looking cat (shades of Hogarth’s Four Stages of Cruelty.) With veils of blue and black creating moody meteorology, Christopher Wood exploits the special quality of watercolour with real skill and to good effect. So does Jenny Mason in an atmospheric little painting Reflection, Loch Inort, Skye. Ian McKenzie Smith is a past master of watercolour (and also a past president) and his Wide Blue Water maintains his usual high standards. Ann Ross’s November Wind, Birdsong, is a lovely composition in cool greys and earthy pinks. John Mooney uses the medium with exquisite precision. Phil Morsman loosely collages sheets of paint-soaked paper to create an abstract composition layered in depth, but a watercolour all the same.

Finally as an observation on all three shows, it is a sign of good health in the national school when there are leaders and followers. It means there is enough energy for the art community to have its own dynamic and not just echo dimly events elsewhere. Having said that, some of the followers of both Will Maclean and Victoria Crowe come a little too close to their models for comfort.

Society of Scottish Artists: Annual Exhibition Rating: ****

Royal Scottish Society of Painters: Annual Exhibition

Rating: ****

Visual Arts Scotland: Annual Exhibition

Rating: ****

at the Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh until 1 March

Will Maclean, an invited artist with VAS, is showing a mesmerising video made in collaboration with Andy Rice. Called Casa Berti, it is a series of collages done in a house in Italy with that name. As you watch, it is as though the pages of a book turn in front of you, but between one page and the next a new image is created as one overlays the other. Listen carefully, too, and the soundtrack is the artist’s uncle singing Gaelic songs.