Art review: SSA Annual Exhibition, Royal Scottish Academy

New media and traditional skills co-exist in this exhibition by and for artists, writes Duncan Macmillan

New media and traditional skills co-exist in this exhibition by and for artists, writes Duncan Macmillan

SSA Annual Exhibition | Rating: **** | Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh

This is the 125th anniversary of the Society of Scottish Artists. In 1891, a group of artists, fed up with the conservatism of the Royal Scottish Academy and very aware, not only of what was happening in art elsewhere, but also of Scottish art’s progressive tradition, decided to form their own exhibiting society. It was to be on more democratic and also more progressive lines than the Academy. In keeping with this objective, in the coming years the new society was frequently first to bring major European artists to Scotland: Braque and the Futurists before the First World War, Paul Klee and Munch in the early 1930s. Before the end of the Second World War, too, they were the first to reconnect British artists with contemporary French art.

Through these events, the SSA has had a direct and fruitful impact on Scottish art. When it was founded, the building that became the RSA, then still known as The Royal Institution, had not yet been given to the Academy and was administered by the Board of Manufactures. Thus the new society was able to outflank the RSA and hold its first exhibition in Scotland’s premier exhibition space, an arrangement that continued thereafter without question, at least until the National Gallery took over the RSA’s building. Since then it has been more problematic. Still, even if it is only for a brief period (until 20 January) this year, the SSA follows the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour (RSW) Open Annual Winter Exhibition in the main RSA rooms.

A distinguished history is no guarantee of continuing relevance. Seeing the SSA show in quick succession after the RSW, however, and in the same galleries as the continuing RSA Open, does suggest that the society has kept its distinctive personality. It has remained progressive, but, as it is run by artists that does not mean it has joined the Gadarene swine blindly following the Turner Prize. That is the creature of the Tate Gallery and the art administrators who have taken over so much of the art world. Not that the SSA excludes new media. As you enter, If by Angela Lloyd greets you. White handkerchiefs with lights under them lead you up the stairs and into the gallery. Handkerchiefs suggest tears. Each is inscribed with a melancholy thought and it is indeed about mourning and loss. In a very different mood, one of the liveliest contributions is from Alan Brown. Called Do Not Press, it is a box with those words beneath a tempting red button. If you can’t resist and do press the button, your photograph is taken and instantly uploaded to Twitter. Cyberspace is all around you. Press a button and you have slipped into the fourth dimension, irretrievably it seems, too. A printed receipt from Twitter thanks you for allowing your picture to be uploaded. In another piece by Brown, two tin cans start talking at once as you approach. They are the voices of David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Either it’s an argument or a case of absolute mutual incomprehension. It’s hard to tell.

Hanging by the entrance, Juliana Capes’s Aquifer is a big bunch of transparent balloons half-filled with water. Defying their natural habit, rather than float, they hang down like huge raindrops. Also by the entrance, Peacockery by Kirsty Whiten is a big, bold painting of two sinister figures in animal masks whose ithyphallic equipment amply explains the tile. Equally sinister, though quieter, Deirdre Robertson has discovered a disused rope-works in Montrose, a dark tunnel of a building with whales’ jawbones in the structure, and has installed there a hangman’s noose of rope made specially. It’s called A Noose Rendition and a rope in a violin case nearby perhaps suggests the rendition is a kind of elegy. Also in sinister mode, a beautiful drawing of Betty’s Baby Doll by Stephanie Pijper belies its disturbing subject, a little girl cuddling a crocodile.


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There are landscapes in various media. Lynne Bingham’s Cloud is a large drawing of the cooling towers of a power station, the sheet mostly sky to accommodate the tall eponymous cloud rising from the towers. Forest is... by Kyra Clegg and Sue Grierson is a long line of linked screens creating the effect of moving through a forest. Susie Leiper’s delicate Peak of the corrie of the milkless cattle suggests rocks, snow and mountains. Lucy Jones’s collage of a shopfront, Blue Bear, Canonmills, is more of a shopscape than a landscape, while Clive Ramage’s elegant print, Super Moon, the full moon against a plain dark ground, if it is not a landscape, either, is nevertheless a lovely moonscape. There are also are a number of figurative prints. Norman McBeath’s photogravure, Countenance, a dark and grainy head is a notable example, but there are not many actual figure paintings, however. Exceptions are one of Audrey Grant’s strange, isolated figures and Joyce Gunn Cairns’s beautiful Ghosts of the Past. A large painting of a woman with two less substantial figures behind her, it is a reminder that figure painting itself is no ghost here. It is alive and well. Robert Powell is a very different kind of figurative artist. His satirical prints and drawings are always a delight. Here, his installation High Rise is a tower of lively tableaux, each one a room inhabited by cut-out figures in his inimitable style and given a title. There seems to be a domestic row going in in one, a 
loud party in another, but my favourite is King Cophetua and Beggar Maid. The king, fat and ugly, is at his computer in a back room apparently finding his beggar maid via an online dating site.

There are some very good abstract prints like Jenny Smith’s white reliefs made in the press without ink, for instance, and abstract paintings, too. Two small paintings by Rowena Comrie, for example, are composed of simple veils of rainbow colour, but Paul Furneaux’s big, four-part painting, Spilling Water: Falling Seed is one of the stars of the show. Misty dark shapes span the four panels, relieved by drops of brilliant blue to make a quiet and satisfying piece of visual music.

There is pressure on space in the galleries because two rooms have been given to the RSA Open, displaced by the Arthur Melville show. The SSA has nevertheless managed quite a spacious hang. This has however been achieved in part by hanging some works so high they are hardly visible. It’s ironic really. Rejecting the Victorian habit of “skying,” or hanging up to the ceiling, Melville was a pioneer of “hanging on the line”, or at eye-level.

• Until 18 January