RSA to making case for the old guard of artists

The Royal Scottish Academy and the National Gallery of Scotland on the Mound, Edinburgh.
The Royal Scottish Academy and the National Gallery of Scotland on the Mound, Edinburgh.
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The National Galleries’ big project for Referendum year is Generation. It involves exhibitions all over the country and so is suitably nationwide, but it is also exclusive: the art of the last 25 years, but limited ostensibly to those who have come of age in that time.

188th RSA ANNUAL EXHIBITION: Focus on Film

Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh

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ADRIAN Wiszniew-ski

Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh

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Jack Knox RSA RSW RGI, Paintings & Drawings: 1956 to present day

Compass Gallery, Glasgow

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It is no coincidence that these parameters echo the under-50 age limit of the Turner Prize. Turner Prize nominees will figure largely, but plenty of artists who have been doing good things in the last 25 years will not.

If it is not ageism, nevertheless it will unhelpfully​ underline the split between those mostly older artists who have got where they are through hard work and commitment, and those, mostly younger, who have taken the shorter route to celebrity via media exposure. Having no other star to steer by, art administrators suppose that is success and so tend to favour the latter group, hence Generation.

The RSA, on the other hand, tends to represent the older generation. Its support of young artists has been exemplary, but like all such institutions the reason that it exists at all is to pool experience and pass it on from one generation to the next and experience comes with years.

Appropriately then, as Generation favours the young, the RSA’s annual exhibition this year proudly demonstrates just how strong the older artists really are.

The exhibition includes more than 300 works by academicians and invited artists, but it is the academicians who shine.

At the centre of the south wall of the main gallery is a group of 21 collages by Doug Cocker. In the century since Braque invented collage, it has bred a lot of clichés, but Cocker has breathed new life into it to create a series of bold and concrete images.

Nearby in a group of watercolours, a relief and a freestanding sculpture, Will Maclean creates a passionate and moving lament for one of the greatest tragedies of the Second World War. The day after the Allies occupied the city of Lubeck and two days before the Armistice, the RAF bombed the harbour, killing 7,000 refugees from the concentration and POW camps of Nazi Germany. Most moving, perhaps, is A Candle for Lubeck, a piece of a boat’s gunwale lined with rope like the wick of a candle.

Among other academicians, John Grant Clifford’s For Mr Mandela is topical in its title, but fierce, spare and bleak in its imagery and execution. His Love Song (Forms of the Father) has the same uncompromising strength. Leon Morrocco invokes Derain and Dufy in two big paintings of the banks of the Thames, but they have a gritty strength which rides far above the usual post-impressionism cliche.

Alfons Bytautas made his reputation with strongly drawn, naturalistic etchings, but has reinvented himself as a master of abstract collage. A quiet pun in the title of one, Back to Nature, hints that for him nature is not to be found in naturalism, after all.

In Waterborne Tower by Gareth Fisher a stainy flow of blue in a field of white paper seems to be supported by an intricate framework of vermilion. He makes poetry out of the very material of watercolour, and indeed, the paper that supports it, identified in an inscription. The result is quite beautiful.

Jake Harvey has long been a highly individual minimalist in stone. Now, in a series of simple squares, circles and ovals in black, grey and ochre, he speaks a language Malevich would understand. Mary Bourne is as eloquent and as minimal in Many Moons, a simple rendering in black stone of the phases of the moon. Much else in this part of the show also sustains this quality.

There is always a memorial section in the RSA for academicians who died in the previous year. John Bellany and Derek Clarke are among those commemorated this year. A big triptych by Bellany dominates the main room and of three paintings by Clarke, one portrait is outstanding.

With the death of Alan Davie, sadly another loss was announced during this year’s exhibition. Though he died in his 94th year, Davie is represented by some truly vigorous recent paintings. Davie, William Turnbull, Eduardo Paolozzi and William Gear were the pioneers of post-war British Modernism. Now that really was a generation.

In a series of etchings, Katy Dove turns lines of letters into a kind of musical notation reminiscent of Mondrian’s late dance paintings. She is also one of a handful of artists who cross over between the RSA and the 50-plus so far named for Generation. The others, as far as I can see from the provisional list, are Dalziel + Scullion, Graham Fagen and Wendy McMurdo. With the exception of these prints by Katy Dove, however, and a single print by Graham Fagen, the reason for there being any crossover at all is because this year the curated part of the RSA show is devoted to invited artists who make films. The curator is Ronald Forbes. Recognising that film has become a mainline medium for artists he is bringing the Academy up to date. Setting the scene, a burning dandelion clock by Sam Spreckly greets you as you enter. Downstairs one gallery has been turned into a makeshift cinema and there are monitors on the wall throughout the lower galleries. There are artists’ films going right back to pioneer Norman McLaren and there are also films about artists, but gallery viewing and cinema viewing are very different things.

In an exhibition you are constantly exercising choice: what to look at, how long to spend on it, whether to go back to it, close examination, distant viewing. Film preempts all that. It demands your attention for a fixed period of time. If it is any good it is immersive, but artists’ films rarely are. There is a practical issue here too. The monitors have half a dozen films in a loop, but you may have to wait quite some time to find out which one you are actually watching. I sampled as much as I could and was fascinated by some of what I saw, Will Maclean’s images running into each other, for instance; Gina Czarnecki’s elegant dance sequence, Source; Dalzeil + Scullion’s beautiful exploration of a landscape – but then these short films are up against cinema films like John Byrne’s hour-long, autobiographical Byrne about Byrne with Robbie Coltrane, Peter Capaldi’s Franz Kafka’s It’s A Wonderful Life, or two films by Murray Grigor. The place to see such things is surely the cinema proper and while it is an admirable initiative, it might have worked better as a season at the Filmhouse, or just with more ambitious screenings in the galleries.

The strength of the Academy exhibition is also supported by two academicians’ shows elsewhere. Although by some mental sleight of hand Steven Campbell is part of Generation, his friend and contemporary Adrian Wiszniewski is not. His show at the Open Eye Gallery demonstrates just what a mistake that is. It marks the publication of a book on the artist by Alex Kidson published by Sansom & Co. and presents a group of superb paintings that demonstrate triumphantly how painting can still respect the old norms and yet be vigorous and original.

The other exhibition, at Compass, is a small retrospective of senior academician Jack Knox. He was head of painting at Glasgow School of Art when Campbell, Wiszniewski and others graduated. That too was a notable generation and Knox was an integral part of its story, yet this retrospective was deemed unworthy of inclusion in Glasgow International, reflecting, perhaps, the same ageist principles as Generation.

• The RSA Annual Exhibition runs until 4 May; Adrian Wiszniewski until 23 April; Jack Knox until 
19 April