Visual art reviews: RSA Open | RGI 149th Annual Exhibition


THE economy of contemporary art is split down the middle. There is what I would call the ordinary domestic market. It deals in art that you might actually want, or can at least imagine having in your house. Prices range from perhaps 20,000 for a painting by an established artist, down to as little as a 100 for a modest print.

Then there is the other market. It claims to be where real contemporary art is bought and sold. It does include some serious artists, but a lot of it just where silly money gets the art that it deserves. Here prices are astronomical and the art itself mostly bears no relationship at all to the way people live. Sadly though, such is the persuasive power of money, our institutions feel they have to buy into this market - witness the recent purchase by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art of a work by Cathy Wilkes for 40,000, while resolutely ignoring the artists whom we ourselves support. Witness in turn, for instance, the absence from the national collection of any significant work by Frances Walker on which I commented last week. Wilkes or Walker, I know which I would choose.

Historically, the marketplace for contemporary art that people might actually want to buy, has been the exhibiting societies. They represent a tradition that stretches back 200 years. The Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) is the oldest of them, but the Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts (RGI) is close behind. It is currently holding its 149th exhibition in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, but that choice of venue tells its own sad story. Both in Edinburgh and in Glasgow, the exhibiting societies have been sidelined. The RGI should be in the McLellan Galleries, but they are closed. Concurrently in Edinburgh the RSA Open is a show of small works in the lower galleries. This is to compensate for the fact that RSA's use of the main galleries that were built for it and which bear its name is so constricted that there is not time to handle the hundreds of submissions for an open exhibition, and they have had to abandon the principle for their main annual show.

Those hundreds of submissions are significant, too. For a great many of our large community of artists, open exhibitions are still the only market they can reach, or at least the only way into any wider market. Hence the RSA Open Exhibition.Constraints of space dictate that all submissions are limited to a largest dimension of 60cm. Academicians can show work, but their works are the minority of the 315 works on show, or that were on show. The art, being small, is also modestly priced, and the show has been busy. When I went back for a second look a couple of works were gone, sold to collectors from abroad who have taken home their purchases. The missing works include a lovely artist's book by Susie Leiper.

So many small works pose real problems of display, but the show has been hung with great care and tact, so the effect is not oppressive. The selection has been careful too, and there are some lovely things.

Catharine Davison is an artist whose work I noticed in both the RSA and the RGI. She paints subtle and atmospheric landscapes. In the RSA her view across Edinburgh from the Calton Hill is outstanding. She will, I think, become a favourite. Nearby, Hillside Steading, a pastel landscape by Alan Cameron, is equally atmospheric. There is not much photography, but Caroline Dear's Sea Lines, just grey water and grey sky, is so eloquently minimal that it could almost be a drawing. Prints by Paul Musgrove, West Mist and Towards Dunvegan, are equally minimal and effective seascapes. Joyce Gunn Cairns's Mad Woman in the Attic is, in contrast, brilliantly expressive of the way the constraints and frustrations of life can eventually bend a mind. Fiona Dean's Outnumbered III, a pair of matt-black lobster claws, is as enigmatic as its title. A wall of birds and animals includes a rather beautifully drawn owl by Lara Scouller and a vividly etched bull by Elizabeth Shepherd. Ann Ross's poetic collage, Endpaper II, hangs here perhaps only because it includes several Chinese horses that give a hint of the oriental. Another poetic collage is Brigid Collins's Our Two Soules, inspired by a poem by John Donne.

Bales by Margaret Bathgate is a photograph that records a knitting fest last summer, when she dressed straw bales in a Fife field in knitted woolly jumpers. Robert Powell's etchings, especially his Anatomy Lesson, have echoes of Rowlandson.

There is also some distinguished sculpture here. Duncan Robertson's Romanesco is a vivid and knobbly bronze of the eponymous brassica. You would break your teeth on Elaine Alison's trio of biscuits in bronze. William Brotherston has perched a cast of a piece of machinery on a rock to poetic effect. Alastair Ross's fragmentary terracotta figure, Corinna, elegantly echoes the art of archaic Greece, but the outstanding sculpture here is Simon Manby's bronze of a tenderly embracing couple, About to Kiss.

In Glasgow the Mitchell Library is more like a railway station than a gallery. Everything has to be put on screens, which always looks a bit makeshift. In consequence, although the space is so much bigger, and there are only 30 more works on display than in the RSA, it looks altogether more crowded.It doesn't help the overall effect when 60 small works are grouped in a square on a single screen. Helpfully a painting by David Shuttleton of the same wall last year reminds us that then there were only 48. It's not an improvement. There are also more square pictures in red or blue impasto and in gold or silver frames than in the RSA. They are such a clich that they are almost a currency, but works like Philip Reeves's collage Summer Beach, or the late James Robertson's semi-abstract painting, Shallows, raise the tone. Catharine Davison's Winter Pinks, a view of yachts in a harbour, is as fluidly luminous as her picture in the RSA. Paul Kennedy's Momentary is a wistful portrait of a girl merging with a soft grey background. Tom Shanks's Ben Ledi is a worthy rendering of a view made famous by DY Cameron. James McNaught's City of Lost Hotels, a moody painting of a desolate back street somewhere in France, is an equally worthy homage to Magritte and Delvaux. Ricky Wiatrek's suspended moment in a luminous urban landscape echoes de Chirico, while Heather Nevay translates the idiom of Hieronymus Bosch to a modern industrial landscape in a tiny, but exquisite circular painting.

Both here and in Edinburgh there are less worthy homages, though. It is a sign of healthy interaction when artists learn from each other, but in Edinburgh a couple of works on view are uncomfortably close to being pastiches of Will Maclean's work, while in Glasgow, Graeme Wilcox's Pilgrims could, from a distance, be mistaken for a picture by Ken Currie.

At the RGI, as in Edinburgh, there are several striking sculptures. Bill Scott's Exploration Table is bronze tabletop with a satisfyingly enigmatic collection of objects displayed on it. Alastair Ross's Zoe is eloquent, but another slim terracotta figure, like a fragment of archaic Greek sculpture, it is perhaps a little too similar to his Edinburgh piece. David Collins's Circular Form in white marble is intriguing, even if it suggests a rather uncomfortably toothed orifice. Tom Allan's Pomegranate, apparently made of gilded terracotta and marble, is a beautiful thing. I also loved Noel McKenna's rendering in fired clay of the Tower of Babel, from Brueghel's eponymous painting.

• RSA Open 2010 until 15 December; RGI 149th Annual Exhibition until 20 November