RSA Annual Exhibition

Visual monogamy is impossible

Feature by Gabriella Griffith | 10 Jun 2007

If fine food is your thing, you are probably salivating at the mouth at the very thought of this summer's culinary festivals: Taste of Scotland and Taste of Edinburgh. You've been dreaming of wandering - guided by your taste buds - around the stalls which Scotland's finest restaurants have to offer, all conveniently assembled for your gastronomical pleasure. But, if you're more likely to be turned on by oil paint than ostrich steak; film than fois gras; and sculpture than soufflé… don't despair - there's a tantalising treat for you too.

The 181st Annual Exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy provides a comprehensive showcase of what the Scottish contemporary art scene has to offer. What an opportunity - an aesthetic 'Taste of Scotland'.

The event presents work from established Scottish artists including that of Callum Innes and Alan Davie, but also brings the fresh influence of younger artists, eager to get their feet on the ladder of artistic esteem.

Walking up the grand staircase of the RSA, one is greeted by a scene reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland's 'mad hatter's tea party'. The sculpture court is filled with pieces of work, mostly figurative, that wait in a variety of forms for the recently arrived audiences. All possible materials have been utilised and finished products range from the surreal, to tribal, to natural.

Throughout the exhibition, one finds certain artworks have been graced with awards. Keivn Dagg's No Man's Land creates quite an arresting focus in the sculpture court, and has been honoured with The Benno Schotz Price for most promising work by a young sculptor. It's clear why. Carved in wood, the piece depicts a young boy clothed in this decade's most stigmatised items – a hoodie. It brings a contemporary edge to the room but also stirs the emotions. The artist has conveyed a sadness in the face that is emphasised by the stains and cracks of the wood - all to moving effect.

Another room is given over to landscapes. A painted screen stretches confidently across the room, depicting a rural coastline, and it invites you to pad across the spongy grass to the water's edge. Such traditional scenes of natural beauty are juxtaposed with modernity. The bold colours and nocturnal naughtiness of Gordon Robin Brown's Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit provides a striking contrast.

The size of the exhibition is remarkable. Every room on both the upper and lower levels of the building is brimming over with Scottish talent. Moving into the rooms filled with paintings, one is overwhelmed by the saturation of work. One feels as though one should give oneself over to a single piece of art and revel in its presence, but another catches the wondering eye, and then another. Visual monogamy is impossible.

The unifying element here is Scotland, and this year the RSA have added another component. To co-inside with the Year of Highland Culture the exhibition contains specially marked out pieces, informed by the highlands. As the glue that holds the exhibition together, they punctuate each room, serving as poignant reminders of the theme. One of the highlights is a slide show of photographs by Richard Demarco. Demarco Digital Archive offers a sneak preview of his collection to be finished next year. Each photograph captures some indescribable essence of the Highlands and Islands, through his imagery of students, artists, archaeology and landscape.

The sheer volume of artworks in this exhibition could be seen as problematic. Not everybody has the luxury of time to give each cluster of pieces their due attention. However, how can you fault such an involved effort to bring all of this work together under the one, neo-classical roof of the RSA. Taking in, exploring and revelling in each artist's work is like delving into the Scottish identity over and over. A pleasurable exercise, even if you do leave feeling a little schizophrenic.

Read about the RSA Annual Exhibition 2006

RSA Edinburgh until 20 June. £4 (£2).