Royal Scottish Academy 187th Annual Exhibition

June 2013

Publication: The Times

The Royal Scottish Academy’s annual exhibition includes work by some of the country’s best artists. Four years ago, the RSA adopted a successful new format whereby an academician curated the show to his or her own design.  This year, Eddie Summerton, a distinguished artist and teacher at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, has coordinated the exhibition under the title ‘Between the Late and the Early’.


The RSA membership largely occupies the lower galleries of this imposing neo-classical edifice, while the sculpture court and upper galleries are devoted to the work of academicians, as well as invited artists, many of whom come from outside Scotland.  Names such as Gustave Doréand Antonio Tàpies – both of whom deal with the macabre – will surprise and delight, as well as demonstrating the intellectual ambition of the curator and the academy.


The exhibition comprises several hundred works, including film, sculpture, sound-works, painting, poetry, photography, drawing and prints. These are assembled, positioned and hung in an order which, in combination with the catalogue, begins, increasingly, to reveal its own logic.


The overall impression is one of professionalism and high standards. It demonstrates the vigorous, healthy state of the nation’s visual thought, as well as the notion of a global village of the arts.


Summerton’s ambiguous title is well-chosen, allowing him to include work  from different periods of historical time; but the phrase also suggests nocturnal time, between dusk and dawn, which many associate with ‘the witching hour.’


So, in a museum vitrine, we find an illustrated antiquarian volume of Burns’ poetry, opened at lines from ‘Tam o’ Shanter’: “Whiles glowring round wi' prudent cares, / Lest bogles catch him unawares:/ Kirk-Alloway was drawing nigh,/   Whare ghaists and houlets nightly cry”


In an adjacent volume is the first witch’s spell in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’: Toad, that under cold stone,/ Days and nights has thirty-one,/ Swelter'd venom sleeping got,/ Boil thou first i' the charmed pot.


We are thus in no doubt as to the show’s ghoulish and supernatural theme, as well as its historical one.


The macabre continues with the work of Gabriela Fridriksdottir. These strange, nightmarish figures look more like the work of an ‘outsider’ artist, such as Angus McPhee, who fashioned strange figures from grass. In one, a mutated sheep’s skull sits on a ceramic salt cellar; in another, a creature fashioned from straw, mud and nail clippings swallows other figures made from similar material.


It’s about now that one begins to notice a series of clever, multiple linkages across the show. Fridriksdottir’s work seems to relate directly to Allison Schulnik’s film or ‘claymation video’, ‘Mound’ . Here, a cluster of zany, grotesque, animated  figures morph, sway and dance to the incongruous notes of ‘It's Raining Today’ by Vegas-style lounge crooner, Noel Scott Engel.


A witches’ brank, a device used to humiliate and torture its largely women wearers who were accused of slander or witchcraft, extends the macabre feel of the show. The branks, along with a pair of brass balaclavas which greet visitors on the stairwell, seem to be in dialogue. In turn these seem to connect with James Giles’ oil from 1830, ‘The Weird Wife O’ Lang Stane Lea’. The painting shows a figure walking under the night sky through the stone circle at Castle Fraser. A hare and a raven, creatures commonly associated with the supernatural, look on.


It’s good to see the RSA throwing off some of its out-dated, stuffy practices and embracing the 21st Century. In the past, the small number of female academicians has been a cause for shame. Clearly aware of this, the current curator should be applauded for achieving a more balanced representation of men and women.