Publication: The Times
There comes a time in the life of any venerable institution when it must either adapt, die or become irrelevant; the Royal Scottish Academy reached this point some time ago and since this realisation has struggled to define its role and its relevance to contemporary Scottish art. This soul-searching was precipitated in part by the emergence of new media and the international nature of the art world when new graduates can find themselves showing work just as easily in Basel or New York as Dundee or Aberdeen. Many the traditional exhibiting and support structures having withered away to be replaced by other chanels.
The RSA struggled for a long time to transmit its purpose to a wider public but recently - in a welcome and clear-headed way – it has realised the importance marketing and the need to court non-traditional audiences and sponsorship. Gone now is the feeling of an enclosed rather dull, if worthy, annual exhibition. The annual show has been split into two parts – an open section which will run from October to December and the current, curated show which features the work of a number of invited non-members whose work can be seen alongside that of invited academicians.
The exhibition convenor, Ian McCulloch, has formulated his vision around the idea of 'the expressive artist and social involvement' – thus there is are no conceptually based works and the predominant media are painting and drawing; there is also a welcome gender balance. The invited non-members - artists Sean Ambrose, Ross Brown, John Goto, Lys Hansen, Margaret Hunter, Paola McClure, Ron O’Donnell, Douglas Thomson, John Taylor, James Tweedie, Callum Mackenzie and architect Gordon Benson – thus show alongside invited members and Honorary Academicians John Byrne, Ian McCulloch, Joyce Cairns, Grant Clifford, Calum Colvin, Gareth Fisher, Ronald Forbes, Gordon Munro, Keith Rand, Kate Downie, Beth Fisher, Neil MacPherson and Arthur Watson.
Each of the artists has been given substantial space and it is this sense of expansivesness and the chronological or themaic sweep that it allows that gives this show such verve and punch.
Some, such as Kate Downie and Beth Fisher have chosen to create drawingss in situ (on the concave surface of a defined area of wall) and while both have used similar chalk and charcoal while working with a vigorous, questing line – their themes and concerns are hugely different. Fisher choses to explore the dynamic of a constantly evolving familial and domestic situation while Downie – fascinated by the idea of junctions – in a literal sense as well as a figurative one - has depicted Haymarket, in Edinburgh as a kind of lament for the homeless who constantly wash through this urban crossing point.
John Taylor, one of a number of significant west coast artists whose talents have remained largely unsung on the east coast shows a number of works relating to the war-time experience of his partner's (Jacki Parry) father. 'There Will Be No Rows of Crosses' shows two figures huddled on the floor of bunker like space while beyond the narrow window rows of white crosses recede into the distance. Such concerns are also shared by Joyce Cairns who has reflected on her father's experience of war and used this a device with which to views the horrors of Auschwitz.
There is a sense that Scotland has an alternative tradition of which it can be proud. Not the belle peinture of the 'Edinburgh School' nor the conceptually-oriented work of contemporary Glasgow-based artists but one where socially and politically motivated art assumes it rightful place. Perhaps it is not fanciful to suggest that this is the beginning of a new art historiography which is begining to plug some of the glaring omissions created by the National Gallies of Scotland towards a truly national collection where a younger generation of artists can begin to assemble a true and balanced idea of the totality of Scottish art.