Visual art review: Royal Scottish Academy Annual Exhibition

From sketch books to scribbled notes, this year's RSA group show reveals how artists put their work together - and actually feels all the more unified for it

RSA ANNUAL EXHIBITION 2011

ROYAL SCOTTISH ACADEMY, EDINBURGH ****

'THE process is never quite so straightforward as the final state of the painting might suggest." So writes Briony Anderson in a book which is part of her submission for the Royal Scottish Academy Annual Exhibition. It is a refrain which echoes through every room of this impressive show.

Last year, largely due to demands on the building, which the RSA now shares with the National Galleries of Scotland, the traditional open-submission annual show - now in its 185th year - was transformed to include a curated element and a selection of work by members. (The open-submission show now takes place later in the year.) This year, under the curatorial eye of artist Victoria Crowe assisted by architect Charlie Sutherland, the show is committed to lifting the lid on what happens in the creative process.

A significant proportion of the show is Hidden Aspects of the Artist's Work - Inspiration and Process, in which Crowe and Sutherland have invited some 20 artists and five architectural practices to show their work, accompanied by research cases of source material. In sketchbooks, photographs, objects and scribbled notes we begin to see something of what happens behind closed doors. Even carefully selected, as these doubtless are, they add an element of informality, as if one might snoop briefly in the artist's studio, flick through books, see what images are stuck up the wall and begin to breathe the creative process. A further innovation is a collage wall of inspirations drawn from a wide body of artists: sketches, sections of dialogue, images, opera programmes, patterns, textures and bits of old wallpaper.

The work of the invited artists and architects is scattered throughout the building, interspersed with works by other RSA members. This allows Crowe's curatorial concerns to percolate through the show. However, the vision does become muddied when works by the same artist are not shown together, and when the source material is not alongside the finished work.

Sculptor Vincent Butler suffers particularly from this, his sketches from a recent trip to Cambodia failing to link up with his bronze nudes, one floor up and half a building away.

For the viewer, however, what Crowe has managed to do is to tame the many-headed monster of the RSA and create a show which has a sense of unity about it, creating a central theme which is both firm enough to give direction and flexible enough to allow for creative interpretation.That central thread is one of exploring place and time, or layering together elements of different places or times. It is there in Crowe's own work (she includes a vitrine of her own), in her collaging of geography and memory, place and object, personal and impersonal. A similar interweaving of ideas can be traced through the work of many of the artists she has chosen.

Will Maclean's paintings and sculptures link place and time, a seafaring past and its mythology. His vitrine, unsurprisingly, is full of the kinds of objects which find their way into his work: penknives and fish hooks and objects carved from bone. Downstairs, Bridget Steed, two generations younger, who grew up in the Aberdeenshire fishing village of Catterline, makes her own connections to travel, whaling and mythology with works entitled Totem and Reliquary.

Stuart Duffin chronicles a lively attempt to make sense of contemporary Jerusalem, weaving together photographs and maps, text and graffiti, showing how ideas synthesise and spark off one another and culminating in several finished pictures and two elegiac films. Briony Anderson's oil sketches of mountains, water and sky are accompanied by her beautiful book, A Picture of My Working Space, and a questioning, conceptual film.

Jock McFadyen's submission is one very large painting of a derelict warehouse on a London canal, Tate Moss: Olympia, on which history, advertising and graffiti are layered. Quirkily, the source material he has submitted is the canoe he bought on eBay which he used to explore these watery byways.Toby Paterson, an artist deeply concerned with the built environment and its history, particularly the failures of visionary modernism, has made a major new work, Overlapping Ghosts, about Kildrum Primary School in Cumbernauld, designed by modernist architects Gillespie, Kidd & Coia. Built in the 1960s and now disused, it is explored here in books and photographs as well as Paterson's bold abstract panels. Both he and Marion Smith, creator of the Panmure Passage in Dundee, a public sculpture inspired by the hull of the ship Discovery, build bridges between the art and architecture elements of the show.

Inspirations are diverse. Accompanying his fine photographs of oceans and horizons, Iain Stewart presents a vitrine which features both Nick Drake and Enid Blyton, while Andrew MacKenzie, who shows here meticulous layered images of landscapes and trees, draws on source material which extends from Rome's Arch of Constantine to roadside billboards.Crowe works hard in her role as curator to tease out something of the practice of artists whose work is abstract and does not easily reveal its origins. Lorna McIntosh's probing sketches and explorations of colour and texture suggest something of the artist's desire to get at that which lies beneath, and an interview by Crowe with Philip Reeves draws out something of this octogenarian's pool of inspiration. There is also an interview with composer Thea Musgrave, in a bold departure from visual art. But the links are strong: the work concerned is Turbulent Landscapes, a piece of music inspired by Turner's paintings.

One of the single largest works in the show is A Hunting Lodge by Ken Currie, a striking painting of a group of men gathered around a table with mugs of coffee musing, I suspect, on the morning's kill. Their pale faces and nondescript clothes blur the sense of past and present. His research case shows grim, tweeded Victorians celebrating their "thousandth stag", accentuating, to modern eyes, the waste of life, and the politics of a country which was exploited as a pleasure ground for the rich.

The gentle but persistent presence of a theme means that one can trace threads from the invited artists into the wider submission: Maclean and Steed find kindred spirits in Joyce Cairns - exploring mythology in the Aberdeen fishing village of Footdee - and Francis Convery. Ian McKenzie Smith reduces an island, or a pair of trees, to its simplest, purest form. Michael Visocchi's sculptures suggest topographical models. James Morrison traditional landscapes show big skies and flat horizons.

Jean Duncan probes gently with her watercolours at what lies beneath the land, its geology and its fossils. Kate Whiteford looks at Lewis from above, revealing its Landlines. Arthur Watson pinpoints sections of Scottish farmland apportioned as the Deil's Land, in Sympathy for the Devil: 13 Locations, creating a striking series of circular panels, each bearing its old, strange place name: Meikleour, Dickmontlaw, Bendochy.

There are some intriguing juxtapositions in the hang: an oil painting of Venice by Earl Haig, included as a memorial, next to work by Geri Loup Nolan, the winner of the Barns Graham Travel Award, getting to grips with contemporary Japan. Two beautiful textured works by Marian Leven, Meltwater and Flux, hang on either side of Delia Baillie's large and striking work Builder, entirely different, yet creating intriguing resonances.

As a snapshot of the RSA, it is rather a traditional one, which puts painting at the centre.There is comparatively little three-dimensional work here, and almost no film or installation, and I wonder if certain quarters of the Academy might feel under-represented. But there is a wider range of work here than first impressions allow, carefully contained within a thematic framework.

Derrick Guild's group of works seem almost to function as an installation because they are shown together. Edward Summerton's group of owls, spattered with paint which looks like bird droppings, is one of the first works we encounter. His are some of the stranger works in the show, though in this context we come to see them as a response to the natural world, its politics and its mythology.

Calum Colvin is a natural choice when looking at the layering of past and present, modern and traditional, person and myth. Adrian Wiszniewski's bold figurative painting Nature Lovers, and Glen Onwin's immense nine-panel Pan-Synthetic Biology occupy the same room harmoniously. Even John Mackechnie's glittering homages to pop art seem in some sense to be about place: one is even titled Chicago Hieroglyphics.

Victoria Crowe's careful curatorial vision harmonises without homogenising. The show brings into the spotlight some artists who might otherwise find themselves overshadowed. Others grab the attention immediately, but we see them here in a fresh light.

• Until 9 June