Art review: RSA New Contemporaries, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh

The pick of Scotland’s 2019 art school graduates make the most of the RSA’s wonderful exhibition spaces, writes Duncan Macmillan

Detail from Ella Lifted in Space, by Ruby Pluhar
Detail from Ella Lifted in Space, by Ruby Pluhar

RSA New Contemporaries, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh ****

The five Scottish art schools together produce almost 200 graduates each year and the RSA New Contemporaries exhibition is selected from the year’s crop of new talent. A team from the RSA goes round the degree shows and chooses outstanding students from the various fine art disciplines. These tend to have different names these days, but they are still essentially painting, sculpture and printmaking, though students often happily combine all three and more, while film has become ubiquitous. There is also a group selected from the architecture schools.

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The resulting New Contemporaries exhibition is always one of the year’s most interesting shows. You cannot help feeling the buzz of energy and optimism, even when the work is bleak as it sometimes is. What really makes it all work, however, is the space. The show occupies both floors of the RSA, but there are less than 60 graduates altogether. If you reckon that the various annual group shows often include more than three times as many individual artists and sometimes more than 300 works, you get some idea of how much space the graduates are given. They also have to prepare for this exposure. They really do respond too, and the work is rarely simply their degree shows warmed up.

This year, the central gallery is dominated by an extraordinary work by Suzanne Anthony made of plastic sheeting, black bags, old plastic chairs and the general detritus of modern life. The idea, she says, is to give all this rejected stuff new life and indeed she does. Not to be outdone in scale, Robyn Seabright’s Consumption is a column, reminiscent of Barncusi’s Endless Column, that reaches up to the gallery’s roof. Nearby Lucia Pearla occupies a whole wall with five big, bold paintings of highly coloured, densely patterned, interweaving serpentine shapes. The five paintings are also butted together as though they were a single work, and she has an even bigger single painting downstairs. She acknowledges the inspiration of Kandinsky and I think he would have been impressed.

Ruby Pluhar’s work is big, too, but also quite personal. It consists of 14 large photographs, half on the wall and the other half beneath and partly propped against it. Those on the wall are of her red-haired friend, Ella, in a landscape and those on the floor are of the landscape itself. The inference is that she is part of the landscape and we all exist in a similar exchange. Renee Hunter’s work is also personal, but in a very different way. She comes from South Ayrshire and has returned to her home ground to illustrate some of its folk tales, those of the witch Maggie Osborne, the gypsy king, Johnnie Faa, and Sweeney Todd, the demon butcher. In a fine set of screenprints, she has given these grisly stories both a modern style and modern relevance.

In a set of sombre, irregularly shaped canvasses, Naomi McClure explores an equally sombre kind of modern folk tale, referencing a number of modern celebrities who all died at the age of 27. The dark canvasses are semi-abstract images of the places where some of them died. Emma Goodwin, however, takes quite the opposite direction. She describes her small, highly coloured, slightly cartoonish paintings as representing a fantastical graphic world which she would much rather live in than in her present reality. She is, she says, currently working in a supermarket. Gabrielle Gillott is engaged with a different kind of escapism: stockpiling and the creation of hideaways and secret rooms by people in fear of Brexit and other manifestations of the insecurity of a society in dangerous decline.  With accompanying films, she has created a dark interior space, a secret room, with monochrome furniture and stacks of monochrome tins of food.

In an extraordinary installation of plants and a schematic human figure, all under ultra violet light, Katherine Fay Allan explores an intriguing analogy between surgery and gardening made by an unnamed surgeon. She was inspired, she says, by surgical procedures which her mother had to undergo. As the plants are evidently medicinal herbs, she also extends the analogy to include traditional homeopathy. Hannah Crooks makes a different plant analogy. She presents large-scale photographs of flowers, cut and then crudely stitched together. It all appears to be a metaphor for FGM and other brutalities still inflicted on women and girls in our supposedly enlightened age. Hugo Harris presents life-size parts of dismembered bodies in lifelike coloured wax. Though on the face of it they also look implicitly violent, his concern is gentler and to do with the way our anatomy manages clever counterbalancing as we move around.

Emma Hislop has explored the techniques of glass blowing for science, but exploits them in an arrangement of tubes and lights which apparently create an artificial cow’s stomach in a curious metaphor of ecological decline and the parallel rise of gut diseases. She was inspired, she says, “by sci-fi, deep ecology, phenomenonology and current biomedical research.” Elsewhere, McLaughlin and Williamson, a two-person team, present a number of static images and rather fascinating films about early steel constructions like the Tay Bridge and the Eiffel Tower. I am not sure that it really helps us to “reframe how we think about technology,” as they suggest, but there’s no harm in being ambitious and that is what this show is all about.

Nor is there any shortage of ambition in Emma-Louise Grady’s paintings. She describes them as “intuitive mark-making” – not a bad starting point for a painter. The results are certainly impressive, big paintings, richly coloured and densely patterned in a way that is reminiscent of Australian aboriginal painting. What is remarkable, however, is that for all their intricate complexity, they keep their freedom and spontaneity.
Bibo Keeley’s work is more sombre, but also very impressive. Her main installation is in the lower galleries, but it is heralded upstairs by a set of seven sculptures like small totem poles, each topped with an ominous, black, semi-figurative shape. There is more blackness downstairs and a single finger post, rather in the manner of Ian Hamilton Finlay, pointing Eco one way and Ego the other, an eloquent summary of her concern with Brexit, climate chaos and alarming political polarisation. There is much more of course, but her work is typical of concerns that find expression in many different ways in this vivid show.

Until 11 March