RSA New Contemporaries: All Hail the Class of 2014

A mainstay of the Scottish art calendar, the annual RSA New Contemporaries exhibition lives up to the hype with the brightest graduates of 2014

Feature by Adam Benmakhlouf | 01 Mar 2015

The RSA New Contemporaries exhibition, now in its seventh year, is one of the biggest opportunities around for recent art school graduates in Scotland. What’s more, all the hype this show attracts is underlined by the tens of thousands of pounds of prize money that will be shared among selected participants. Graduates from the Dundee, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Moray art schools are gathered under the gilded ceilings of the Royal Scottish Academy so it’s also a handy way to get a digest of what’s going on in the minds of up and coming artists across the country. Even those who made the rounds of last year's degree shows have a surprise in store this year, as the work by the Glasgow School of Art graduates will be shown for the first time, following the devastating cancellation of the 2014 fine art degree show. 

Even being privy to the proposals and having a chat with the exhibitors, there’s (gladly) no easy way to tie together the diverse practices that have been selected by the RSA to be part of the show. In the first instance, and already featured in the Skinny Showcase, there’s Caitlin Hynes, whose work has an unashamed proclivity for riotous, raucous (and rococo), boisterous and colourful work. While there’s a dizzying amount of detail to the work, it’s not overwrought. There’s hoarder-collector’s mentality to the collaging, assemblage and layering of fabrics, which are painting and print, stitched and glued together. Pretty terrifying at first glance, these works are full of smiling, out of proportion faces with big open mouths and drunk, bulging eyes. Hynes tends to pack the work in for exhibition, like the overstocked street stall you could imagine at a Day of the Dead festival. For the RSA, this accumulative logic will inform not only the dense composition of the two large wall hangings to be exhibited, but also a painted wooden cart which will host different drawings, objects and artifacts.

From the colourful to the camp, there’s Hannah Clarkson-Dornan who, in her practice, enquires into “decadence, authenticity and ownership in the age of information.” Making a bit of whimsy from what could be pretty dry subject matter, Clarkson-Dornan’s more interested in the draw of cute cat videos, and the strange humour that comes with dogs doing slapstick, or as she puts it, “the cult of celebrity that surrounds particular animal characters on the internet.” She accepts that a lot of this kind of “stock imagery” is often amateurish and borderline dull. With this material, which isn’t intrinsically exciting visually, Clarkson-Dornan spends time revamping these images with the traditional formats of fine art.  Combining an interest in “camp” internet animal imagery with painting and sculpture, Clarkson-Dornan will present two large scale paintings that combine traditional farm scenes with the cartoonish, alongside found bog wood and delicate glass sculptures.

Things become more wryly conceptual and tidily ordered with Isabella Widger’s very considered arrangements of objects that are “elegantly impractical.” Her work is often delicately balanced, or left standing waifish against the wall. What Widger values is the pursuit of “a fragile, precarious [and] physically, materially unstable structure of display.” Within these thoughtful configurations, there is a mixture of mass fashion textiles and the alluring textures and tactility of the high production finish and attractive materials of luxury goods. But with the addition of sex toy-like objects, there’s a dual referencing of fetishising in its everyday, as well as more political senses.

But – there’s no shame in asking – where are the painters just doing paintings? Those looking for a more conventional painterly approach need not worry, as there’s the work of Catherine Ross. Through her paintings and model works, this artist explores remembered and imagined scenes from her earliest memories of growing up in the Northwest Territories of Canada. For the exhibition, Ross will exhibit two large panoramas of icy landscapes. Measuring four and a half metres long each and with roughly textured surfaces, these works feel designed to dominate the viewer’s gaze entirely. Choosing these bleak landscapes, there’s an illogical longing to inhabit these inhospitable yet impressive environments.

From childhood memories to a dodgy Glasgow adolescence, Craig Wright experiments with the insignia of the North Glasgow gang, the Kirky Hoods, and specifically the Crann Tara – which Wright had tattooed to his thigh as part of another work, Hoods 4 Lyf. In the upcoming exhibition, Wright will exhibit photographs of an intimidating performance, when he burned the Crann Tara sign at the top of Law Hill in Dundee. Taking as inspiration the disturbing practices of the KKK and the signs and symbols of North Glasgow gang culture, Wright probes “the mob mentality,” that can push “an individual [to] perform an action in order to appease the overall group that he would never do by his own will.”

It’s youth subculture again in Robbie Hamilton’s work, who brings his experience as a skateboarder literally into the gallery space as a challenge to the regulated institutional framework of the gallery context. Hamilton turns the Royal Scottish Academy into a skate park, and makes what he calls “drawings” by skating on two ramps and leaving scuff marks on the white walls. After the initial performance the two ramps are left along with the marks as documentation, as well as sculptural and drawing works in their own right.

From the Flying Wallendas of the skatepark to the infirmities of old age, Joe Hancock will fulfil an ambitious sculptural project that’s been over four years in the making and survived the same fire that left the Mackintosh building worse for wear. Deus ex Machina is a large scale sculpture made from two spiral stairlifts, one of which is Hancock’s grandmother’s, retrieved after her death. Running at intervals timed to the breeding cycles of cicadas, the work’s a complex constellation of associations, mixing the personal, references to natural science and the subtle melancholia of an empty set of stairlifts futilely running up, then down again. Hancock doesn’t mince words speaking about his commitment to what is still a hugely labour-intensive work (at 600 kg, storage and transport is no mean feat): “It is the most ambitious thing I have ever made. Sometimes artists become deeply involved in their work, and I fell in love with mine.”

Paloma Proudfoot is also making a sculptural addition to the gallery space, though far subtler. Proudfoot was recently mentioned in our online weekly events column for her participation in Embassy’s exhibition, Self Storage, which was more focused on her interest in making outlandish, often completely impractical articles of clothing. In the RSA, Proudfoot’s looking more to the architecture of the RSA itself, interrupting the conventional ornamentation of one of the arches with an “intestine-like” yellow rubber-coated rope held in place with ceramic fingers. Just as her clothes sculptures incorporate functional design (of, for example, work uniforms) this rope runs into decorative ceramic drainage pipes, then to ceramic rope plaques.

Whereas Proudfoot locates her work within the physical space of the RSA, Sarah Sheard wonders about the institution of the RSA itself and her place within it, as a 'New Contemporary.' For the New Contemporaries show, Sheard will create an audience-interactive installation of drawers and cabinets filled with paintings, prints and objects that “parody” the work of Peter Doig, John Bellany and Elizabeth Blackadder. “This is not an attack on these artists,” Sheard assures, “but an exploration of their work within the context of what it means to be a new contemporary.” With all the exhibitors as fresh out of art school as each other, and now exhibiting in the hallowed RSA, Sheard perhaps inadvertently represents the 2015 New Contemporaries when she asks, simply, “Am I part of the club now?”

While there’s a questioning of their institutional positions as recent art school graduates, the New Contemporaries 2015 in all cases show no sign of being daunted by the honour of the RSA. The exhibitors finally and definitely shuck off the safety of the occupation of art student as all that degree show bravado crystallises into something solid and promising. It’s a fond moment, and deserving of all ceremony and attention.


More art reviews:

ECA Degree Show 2015 exhibition review

Dundee Degree Show 2015 exhibition review

More from The Skinny:

digital distress - exploring mental health and technology

RSA New Contemporaries, 14 Mar-8 Apr, Edinburgh, £4 (£2)