RSA Annual Exhibition

this show contains both work you can take home and put on your wall and work that will make you think

Feature by Rosamund West | 16 May 2006

The annual showcase of the work of the Royal Scottish Academicians is a mish mash of styles and levels of quality, with works by the Scottish establishment of RSA members interspersed with the generally fresher works obtained by open submission.

As is usual in an RSA group show there is a vast quantity of work on display in a relatively constrained space, which often detracts a little from the pieces as individual entities. However in this particular exhibition several artists shine through.

Doug Cocker's cut and sanded wood assemblage Fast Landscape is a kind of solid drawing, gestural lines alluding to fragments of recognisable forms, a 3D deconstruction of the process of seeing, configuring, remembering shapes and images. Other sculptural works include Marion Smith's meticulously cut cardboard structure Refuge 2. Beautifully constructed, the shelter-alike formally references a weapon of mass destruction, or the inner workings of a generator and is topped by the copper casing of a real missile so that the 'refuge' conceals the instruments of war.

The majority of the work on display is painting and printmaking, often unashamedly traditional in style. Matthew Draper's Moonlight Across Falmouth Bay is a beautifully executed Turner-esque painting of a dark night, a black canvas with a central luminescence capturing the light of the moon, the streetlights, the reflections in the ocean. Downstairs James Morison's Summer Isles, 20.9.04 captures the epic scale and isolation of its subject, the canvas dominated by the overhanging, forbidding clouds that characterise the dramatic climate of the north-west of Scotland. Works such as these reveal that landscape painting, if done well, still has a presence and a power to move that is often lacking in more conceptually driven artworks.

However, while these works argue the case for painting for painting's sake other works highlight how infuriatingly pointless a bad painting can be. Peter Collins' The Fall of Icarus has a wee touch of the Vettrianos, a pedestrian, poorly painted canvas that leaves the viewer wondering what on earth possessed the artist to produce a dodgy myth painting in pastel hues. Presumably it is some form of joke, but any humour was lost on me. Similarly, the adjoining (and prize-winning) Bike Perch is just plain weird, a strange juxtaposition of birds and bikes - perhaps an attempt at a pseudo surrealism. It won the prize for best animal picture, which seems suitably patronising.

The most interesting works in the exhibition, and the pieces that save it from becoming a high-end art saleroom, are those specially commissioned by the RSA. Danish artists Eva Merz's SPACE/RETAIL/MAGIC uses David Hockney's photo collage technique to create the works that, uniquely, cover three walls and occupy most of the space in one of the galleries. She has been granted a great deal more exhibiting space than the regular contributors, and this has given her the freedom to display three large-scale, freestanding digital prints of her collages. The works document the social spaces affected by British supermarket retail, one the car park of an abandoned Tesco, one the car park of a new Tesco hypermarket, one the field that was saved by the local community from being turned into a supermarket. The increasing barrenness of the car parks, the attempts at flower beds of the abandoned supermarket completely removed from the new improved hypermarket, highlights the sterility of mass market retail, the alienation caused by the absolute repetition and anonymity of their construction. The pieces question our current social structures, the contrast between the green community land and the smooth grey tarmac highlighting how far our social spaces have come from being intimate, personal, familiar.

Examples of more inspirational designs for social spaces can be found downstairs among the architectural plans and models. The models themselves are fascinating to look at, immaculately constructed and giving us a kind of sneak preview of what could be in our public buildings. On a more basic level, looking at them appeals to a childishness in the viewer, their tiny scale making them a little like real live dolls' houses.

All in all this exhibition will probably appeal to a vast cross section of the public as it contains, in very basic terms, both work you can take home and put on your wall and work that will make you think. There are also works by big name artists ( John Bellany, Adrian Wiszniewski) that can actually be bought - always a good investment if you're very rich, although they'll probably all be sold already. There's probably something for everyone among the vast quantity of artworks on display, and the sheer volume and density of the exhibition makes it absorbing and definitely worth the entry fee.

The RSA Annual exhibition runs at the RSA, The Mound, Edinburgh until May 21.