RSA Open 2015

Publication: The Times.     
November 2015

The RSA’s annual exhibition is an attractive proposition for contemporary artists based in Scotland, and further afield. Entrants, once chosen in a rigorous selection process, have exposure in a prestigious venue at a time of year when modestly priced artworks have an appeal for the Christmas market.

Such commercial imperatives are important: artists have to make a living and the RSA, which receives no state funding, has to finance diverse activities that support artists and promote their work.

This year, nearly 400 works, in a variety of media that includes film, artists’ books, painting, print-making and sculpture in a wide range of materials, occupies three galleries in the RSA building. The walls are chock-a-block with works.  The lower Findlay Room houses smaller work, mainly in monochrome, as well as film, while the upper galleries display larger, brighter work interspersed with sculptures on plinths.

It takes time to filter and process such a visual bombardment but once this has been done, a number of works emerge that are outstanding, and in most cases, affordable.

Two films, in their own ways, repay some attention. One, ‘Le Sireneuse’ is by glass artist, Carrie Fertig and was made as a residency at Lyth Arts Centre in Caithness. Fertig made a number of hand-blown glass instruments which were played as part of a small ensemble with other musicians. The resulting HD film is an intriguing balletic interplay of sound and movement. Paul Holmes filmed the Danish jazz group Haftnor Medbøe Quartet, focussing on the facial tics and expressions of the musicians. The resulting film, devoid of music, or context, provides intriguing viewing, not least because of the intense level of eye contact between the musicians during the set.

Medbøe specialises in an intense form of Scandinavian jazz: poetic, intense and firmly linked to the cycles of nature. The same might be said of Georgia Rose Murray’s ‘Rainbow Trout, Cormorant Noir. Murray made the painting during a sojourn in Iceland, and the intense stark colours and forms of the cormorants and of the heavily glaciated landscape, predominate.

Many artists here chose to focus on Scottish landscapes in its many varieties and seasons. There are multiple contemporary references, not least to the recent demolition of Cockenzie power station, which is captured in a fleeting moment of beauty and tranquillity by Rose Strang who handles her paint and composition with deftness and confidence. The Cockenzie theme is echoed in a photograph by Will Collier, taken in the first seconds after the stacks were blown up: the smoke and debris form a ghostly after image in the sky, suggesting a quasi human form.

Geoff Uglow is a well established painter whose work commands high prices. Here a duo of work reflecting on the Scottish independence referendum, ‘Saltire’ and ‘Union Jack,’ provides views of the city of Edinburgh from Calton Hill. Although the vistas are similar and the characteristic thick, three dimensional use of paint, remains the same in both works, the subtle differences in hues cast oblique references on identity and outlook.

Elsewhere there is fine etching by Miriam Vickers and arresting mixed media construction of books, paper and copper by Keiko Mukaide and Mark Powell.

A number of RSA Academicians have contributed here, including Ian McCulloch, Jake Harvey and Joyce Cairns – each, in their respective media and approaches remain strong and distinctive.