RSA New Contemporaries 2014: The Shock of the New

A solid must-see in Scotland’s contemporary art calendar, RSA New Contemporaries serves up a fresh slice of Zeitgeist from Scotland’s most talented emergent artists, and its sixth annual incarnation looks set to be the most competitive yet

Feature by Kate Andrews | 06 Feb 2014

Every year, graduates are cherry-picked from across the country’s five main art schools and six schools of architecture and given the enviable opportunity to show their wares in the Royal Scottish Academy, the same grand galleries which have displayed the likes of Douglas Gordon, Gerhard Richter and Andy Warhol before them (no pressure then).

The rigorously curated selection process encourages the development of degree shows into substantial bodies of new work at this pivotal career point and a chance to cement an ongoing relationship with the RSA. As ever, under their supportive wing, an array of monetary, residency, exhibition, studio and purchase prizes are offered up for the 63 exhibitors to vie for (including the prestigious Skinny & CCA Award); this year the stakes are even higher with the addition of a dizzying £10,000 bursary courtesy of The Fleming-Wyfold foundation plus an additional £4000 towards project production costs for a London exhibition and a year-long mentoring scheme, all up for grabs for one precocious individual. As with any generational cultural production we see certain tropes emerging as significant amid the manifold approaches: there will be glamorous grrrls; lost boys; an abundance of wit, wisdom and pitch black humour all duly served up with sprinklings of megalomania, pyromania and the odd dash of rampant traditionalism.

With such a bonanza on offer there really is everything to play for – we've taken a closer look at this year’s crop to see what they’re made of:

The Egos

We have learned to expect a healthy dose of acerbic institutional critique from ECA graduate Dennis J Reinmüller whose portable, self-aware smiley ‘visitor’ demands to be pushed throughout the gallery like an embarrassing granny with no social filter by those brave enough to take charge of him: The Expert will survey the exhibition, intermittently spouting Reinmüller’s characteristic ‘affirmations,’ tongue firmly in its waxen cheek. Transgressing appropriate gallery behaviour for both visitors and exhibitors, this nomadic creation will demand to be placed in the way of other works and will even attempt to solicit visitors into purchasing itself. As a sleeper agent operating remotely on behalf of the artist (who witheringly acknowledges and attempts to subvert Artworld pretensions) The Expert allows Reinmüller to treat the whole of the New Contemporaries as his raw material.

Fascinated with “the phenomena of artists constructing [a] public image in order to pursue higher value [for] their artwork” GSA graduates Justyna Ataman & Aleksandra Roch create artistic personae “compliant with current art market.” Following a memorably slick and businesslike degree show the duo plan to mix old and new work, raising further uncomfortable questions about art and economy through video, photography and performance. The appearance of yellow body stockings is as yet unconfirmed in their bid to invite non-artists to participate in discussions about the art market. Again, humour and openness to interpretation counterbalance what could otherwise be perceived as rather arrogant gestures.

Taking on the unpredictable terrain of a reliance on participation, Natalie Kerr of Gray's School of Art attempts to coax a little glee from the RSA’s staff; working with a composer, they will sing their little hearts out and thus the facilitators of the art become the artwork – something which Kerr feels will be “empowering” for all involved; an attempt to level the playing field between artist and audience, shining a spotlight behind the scenes.

Lost Boys/Found objects

The backdrop to all these participatory shenanigans is thoughtfully provided by the 60-odd other selected artists; though they may have to pull their socks up to compete with a dazzling fifteen metre wide wall painting by Mikey Cook. In this souped-up re-presentation of his GSA degree show, Cook’s casts of two Magnesian Limestone Siren statues, excavated from the Roman fort under his native Castleford, nestle “like big pearls” in an enviable spot in the central neoclassical gallery space. They pay homage to Venus, goddess of love and sex. Mining his past and his origins, Cook uncovers and maps out synchronicities between found newspaper cuttings which reference the mythical character Julie (a goddess-cum-whore figure for grubby prepubescent fantasies) and Castleford’s rich Roman heritage.  

The sweet pang of a bygone misspent youth resounds with Duncan of Jordanstone graduate Jonny Lyons. Looking back to the fragility of childhood friendship and adventure, his coming of age tale is perhaps slightly more Lord of the Flies than Swallows and Amazons. Lyons creates active sculptural playthings which execute anarchy on his behalf. The performative work results in iconic medium format photographs and beautifully crafted sculptural props. He plans to exhibit a newly-made mechanical ‘device’ for New Contemporaries.

Both Lyons and fellow D of J graduate Dorian Braun were previous recipients of the RSA John Kinross scholarship. Braun collaborates with Jack Paton in a “multidisciplinary practice driven by an ever expanding curiosity of how things work”. The curious pair take a break from such exploits as hanging paintings from nails knocked into their nasal cavities to exhibit a performative large-scale adaptation of a classic children’s automata toy.

Anti-conceptual (colour)ists

Continuing into a lighter territory Flo Gordon, also of Duncan of Jordanstone, bases her Oeuf-oeuvre on an insistence that instinctive humour does in fact exist. Making good use of the intrinsic fun found in “the banal and utterly bland,” her fascination with fried eggs has become her calling-card, lending much to her very own version of colour theory, graded on the giggle-eliciting factor of colour combinations. The sculpture she will be showing apparently came to her “fully formed” in a dream and a new addition to her palette (palate?), the humorously coloured Battenberg cake, will also feature.

There are hidden depths behind what’s tickling Gordon’s funny bone; she hopes to celebrate the 'saving graces' of human traits that are more commonly thought of as being bad; “I just want to relieve people of some of the anxieties that we place on ourselves […] Give them a pat on the back and say 'hey you're not all bad.'” A little light relief can go a long way.

ECA’s Charlotte Roseberry explores paint through the language of nonsensical imagery to create bold graphic aesthetics and surreal landscapes which could often be plucked out of eight bit computer games. Her tableaux shimmer with geometric planes; portholes or ‘windows’ add a further sense of discord. She relishes in “asking unanswerable questions – sometimes tongue in cheek, sometimes more dark and unsettling […] messing with the sense of time, place, space…”

In strict defiance to an abundance of conceptualism, oil portrait painter Culloden Robertson takes inspiration from the opulent society portraits of the Edwardian and Victorian eras clashed with today’s equivalent in the image-rich resources of social media. Her unabashed celebration of lavish beauty, frivolity and ornament fights against fetishistic overtones and is served-up on a fashionably-ornate but distinctly lo-fi bare lasercut ply. Being displayed in such proximity to the National Gallery’s Bouchers but in the young, hip, sister gallery seems all-too serendipitous for words.

As many themes as there are that echo around the Academy, the wild cards will make just as much of an impact. Expect to make startling eye contact with an amur leopard; marvel at anthropomorphic miniatures and witness a tribute to a lost creative super-gran. As ever, the architecture selection evinces a dazzling array of model making and drawing from the technical to the experimental and takes the concept of sustainable living to new, even interplanetary dimensions. You won’t be disappointed.

We must spare a thought at this time of year for the new crop of final year students waking up sweaty in the middle of the night, contemplating the fresh hell that awaits them in the lead-up to degree shows; this exhibition should fill them with aspiration and assurance of what incredible feats can be produced at this most productive time of their artistic lives. That there still exist institutions which are willing to invest in and support whatever is in the hearts of Scotland’s emerging talent is some reason to rest easy… So knuckle down class of 2014 – next time it could be you!

New Contemporaries 2014, RSA, 15 Feb-12 Mar, £4 (£2) This article was amended on 6 Feb