Royal Scottish Academy Annual Open Exhibition 2014

Publication: The Times.    
November 2014

The RSA’s annual open exhibition is a mixed bag in terms of format, medium and theme. It is first and foremost a selling show, designed to appeal to all budgets, in the run up to Christmas. The Academy receives no public funding and its existence is due entirely to the efforts of its members, most of whom give their time gratis, so commercial imperatives are necessarily to the fore.

Part of the attraction is that it gives other artists the chance to show their work alongside academicians, such as Richard Demarco, David Mach, Ian McCulloch and Arthur Watson, the RSA President. 400 paintings, prints, graphics, sculpture and small installations, chosen from 1400 entries, adorn the walls and plinths in the lower galleries.

By necessity, the work is hung in various clusters, groupings and ‘clouds’. Often the determining factor is size or frame style. Quality or content are sometimes less important in this context and this can make for challenging viewing. The eye can’t settle and is drawn hither and thither.

Eventually, though, it may settle on a work like Helen Glassford’s small abstract oil The Sea and Me ¾  a vital stroke of vibrant blue against a deep black ground. Maybe it’s an autobiographical fragment which speaks about despair and, ultimately, its transcendence.

‘Where do you go young seal?’ is the question posed in the title of Erlend Tait’s otherworldly portrait of a young women. The artist, who must surely be Orcadian, refers to the folklore of the selkie, the seductive seal people who took human lovers but eventually returned to the sea.

Josefina Ayllón’s untitledpainting, by contrast, sets an unidentifiable subject against a lurid green ground. The standing male figure is depicted in thick smeared acrylic but the artist seems less interested in creating the illusion of a likeness than in the physicality of the paint.

Ayllón is one of a small but significant group of artists based overseas but whose work is included because of the RSA’s new online submission procedure.

Amidst a sometimes predictable assortment, some work stands out. Photography, although in a minority, is well represented. Sylwia Kowalczyk’s stark portrait of an older women allows the sitter nowhere to hide.  Behind the heavy eyes and pallor of the sitter, there is a lifetime of struggle.

Christine Wyllie’s pair of photographically derived etchings, Herbarium I and II, shows how everyday objects can be transformed into alluring, but delicate, abstraction. 

Jackie Parry’s cast hand-made paper construction Library 2 is subtle, nuanced, and well crafted ¾its scroll-like structure clearly referencing the origins of paper and writing.  Although Parry is an academician, her work, which has evolved over decades, deserves to be better known.

By far the strangest work here is a pair of paper cups, minutely decorated by a myriad set of bizarre, inter-connected semi-pornographic images. The artist, Paul Westcombe, well known at the Saatchi and Whitechapel galleries, seems obsessed with his own sexual phantasmagoria and is clearly an acquired taste.