Visual art exhibitions and events with a platform for critical writing
RSA Upper and Lower Galleries, Edinburgh
Reviewed by: Catriona Black »
A big minty breath of fresh air swept through the Royal Scottish Academy this February, with the first ever RSA New Contemporaries exhibition. In a bold revamp of the annual student show, the old open-door policy is out that jumble-sale clutter of degree show extracts, good, bad and indifferent, has become a thing of the past.
The new show was strictly by invitation only; Professor Will Maclean led a team of RSA members (including luminaries such as John Byrne) around Scotland's 2008 degree shows, and in consultation with art school staff, they picked out 60 of the best. Those lucky artists were invited to develop their work further, and to show a selection of pieces instead of the usual one.
The result was a stylish and eye-catching show which was still enormous, but now also spacious and inviting. Sculptures, installation, paintings, performance, photographs, new media and architectural proposals all had room to breathe, from the marble grandeur of the Sculpture Court to the farthest reaches of the darker Lower Galleries. Excitement lay beyond every doorway, promising floating leviathans, mysterious narratives and swarms of dripping, watching, dying and diving things of every shape and size.
The catalogue was a further innovation. Glossy and comprehensive, with a full-colour page for every artist, it's meant to become an annual who's who of new Scottish talent. That's an ambitious goal, but the RSA are well on their way to achieving it. They've done the groundwork, they've gathered the cream of the crop together, and they've pulled it off with style.
On my second visit (it took me two days to take it all in), I bumped into directors from some of Scotland's biggest galleries, scouting for new talent, and for new works to add to their collections. They were exhilarated, but also baffled: how do you go about choosing when artists are still so new, untested and liable (for all their qualities) to disappear into the artless vortex of paying for a roof over their heads?
And how, as a newly-graduated artist, do you manage to attract attention in a sprawling show like this? Memories of the works still swim around my mind, isolated and contextualised in each case only by a short artist's statement in the catalogue. The big, eye-catching crowd-pleasers remain particularly vivid, but that doesn't mean that they're the best just the most spectacular and Guy Debord would have plenty to say about that.
Take Duncan of Jordanstone graduate Euan Taylor's Cloud Muncher, for instance: a lurid, orange, wooden machine; its crude lifting apparatus towered above the central gallery space. Branded 'Inefficient Solutions' on the side, visitors were invited to enter its wobbly cabin, and to push knobs, buttons and switches with childish delight. Nothing much happened except the odd creak, toot and flashing light, but when I got my shot, the reckless flicking of switches produced an undeniable frisson.
Was this just spectacle, an entertaining theme-park ride designed to produce a chortle and a passing thrill? A look at the artist's statement didn't provide the answer; treated as part of the artwork, it poked fun at corporate mission statements and inefficiency. Amongst the mass of artists' statements peppering opaque art-speak with self-conscious references to philosophers, Taylor's came as a refreshing exception, but it risked leaving the viewer stranded without any context in which to understand the work.
The problem, to a great extent, is new. In centuries past, artists learned their craft and communicated through an established artistic language, with subjects and symbols inherited over generations, universally understood. A single work could then be valued on its own merits without the need to slot it into the artist's wider oeuvre.
Now, we lean heavily on contextualisation to understand art. The development of an artist's practice is valued more highly than the individual works; isolated artworks are like single words plucked from a complex sentence and left, sometimes, to splutter meaninglessly on their own.
That makes life difficult for young artists starting out, and for audiences seeking to make sense of their opening salvos. Entertainment value is one legitimate strategy among many to make an impact, and only time will tell whether deep thinking lurks underneath the cheerful surface.
One work impossible to miss was Moray College of Art graduate Georgina Porteous's Inflatable Foetus, an enormous white nylon balloon in the shape of an unborn baby, wafting gently above its coiling umbilical cord. Few galleries would be large enough to accommodate this gentle giant, and though it was memorable and eye-catching, Porteous's less spectacular companion pieces were the real success for me.
Scattered beneath the floating baby, like modern-day memento mori, were two plastic commodes and a hoist and sling; all three were drab, institutional contraptions smelling of disinfectant and pointing towards an undignified but miserably commonplace end. Two contained video projections of young people submerged under water, linking the floating foetus with old aged decrepitude, in a twenty-first century "three ages of man".
Another big eye-catcher was Glasgow School of Art graduate Sarah Ingersoll's pair of witty sculptures. Yearling was a colourful stuffed patchwork stag, feet in the air, tongue comically lolling, and its red squashy entrails spilling out all over the floor. Keeping it company was a little stitched rat in a similar sorry state.
Scottish art history provides numerous examples of nobles and their gillies, gralloching stags in a rugged, macho landscape. In Yearling, the subject became strangely soft and cuddly, domesticated and feminised by the medium. It was hard not to laugh at this comical caricature. Nearby, Ingersoll's second sculpture was a rain shower of papier-mâché birds, suspended on nylon, as they dove to their deaths on the floor.
Hundreds of birds that had already met their fate lay scattered in a high impact spatter, the result both elegant and darkly funny. The piece's title, Something About The Days Getting Shorter, pointed to popular mythology about lemming-type creatures who commit mass suicide, a way for society to think about its own tragedies under cover of casual humour.
Occupying the opposite end of the Sculpture Court sat fellow Glasgow School of Art graduate Ella Clogstoun's untitled sculpture, eschewing grand spectacle for something subtler. Her eight little tottering towers recalled the modular approach of Modernism, but her building blocks were those old-lady teacups and sugar bowls you'd find in a second-hand shop; their flowery patterns and gold trim the nemesis of any self-respecting minimalist. The result was a delightful reworking of the vertical, masculine industrial urge into a fragile container of delicate, private histories.
After spending some time imagining the lives of those deceased Kelvinside ladies whose tea sets might have contributed to Clogstoun's towers, I turned to the catalogue to read the artist's statement. I found to my surprise that her main concern was the crossover between the decadent Catholic tradition and modern consumer culture. Here is a perfect example where one work can reveal little of its meaning in isolation.
Whatever her point of origin, Clogstoun has fitted her work neatly into an ongoing art historical narrative; many of today's artists are revisiting the ideals of twentieth century Modernism, and like Clogstoun, turning them inside out. This is something that gallery-goers can grasp, an anchor in the otherwise disorienting sea of new works from new graduates. By taking part in a universally recognised dialogue, Clogstoun has found her way to make an instant connection with the viewer.
The most obvious way for a work of art to attract attention is to demonstrate show-stopping craftsmanship. It's not the fashionable way to excel, and even the word itself is patriarchal and out-dated, but good quality execution will never lose its value.
This is particularly true for architects, whose buildings would fall down without attention to physical detail, and whose clients would walk away from poorly presented proposals. There were several architects represented in the show, interesting as much for their modes of presentation as for the ideas themselves.
The University of Edinburgh's Ross Perkin offered a dynamic film centre, couched within, and floating above, the dense old Spanish town of Cádiz. He embraced the chaos of the decaying old town, and of people's ways of moving through it. The excitement of his project was conveyed through his cardboard model of the area, hovering high above the gallery floor on long, rusty metal stilts.
Photography is another field in which quality execution remains highly respected. The beautifully lit photographs of Gray's graduate Callum Chapman elevated grubby, forgotten spaces into sites of high visual drama. Tiny interventions raised a pile of greying bed sheets and a crumpled old cardboard box from the status of gritty still life to seductive theatre.
Painters, however, were still visibly struggling with their place in contemporary art. While installation artists demonstrated a cheerful confidence throughout the exhibition, the contribution from painters was in many cases less assured. Some were effectively conceptual artists appropriating the apparatus of painting. Others exhibited clumsy execution in their efforts to prioritise ideas over craft.
Gray's graduate Margaret Livingstone was an exception to both her three rich paintings were darkly beautiful, and her catalogue statement unusually honest. "I hate talking about my work", it began. Because of her skill as a painter, this ambiguity didn't limit my appreciation of her canvases as it did with other, more conceptual works in the show.
Where Have All The Wild Things Gone? combined a well-judged composition, seductive texture, and the mystery of a half-bandaged hind, twitching with its last breath. Three small blue-suited men were jiving on its back, or writhing; the difference between joy and pain seemed somehow irrelevant.
While Livingstone's paintings were deeply intuitive, those of Duncan of Jordanstone graduate Ross Brown were of a far more conceptual nature. His romantic landscapes of derelict urban wastelands were cut through with scratchy graffiti-like markings, leaving clear only their cool reflections in puddles of water. Loch House, an unpeopled building site, was a mass of interconnecting timbers, all pointing towards a blank end wall that refused to become a point of focus. There was plenty food for thought in these paintings, but also a poised and unexpected beauty.
Edinburgh College of Art graduate Rebecca Witko showed no qualms about working in paint, effortlessly reinventing the medium with her bright, layered construction blazing across the wall and onto the floor. The excitement of city bustle was perfectly captured, in a stimulating mix of graphic effects and home-spun joinery.
Lastly, the really brave will seek to attract attention through understatement. Edinburgh College of Art graduate Cornelius Dupre did just that with Prop (Reclining Nude), a cube of foam on which leaned a simple wooden post, cast in bronze. There was something deeply traditional about this sculpture, despite its modern format.
Overall though, understatement was rare. RSA New Contemporaries was packed full of big, bold statements, pointing to a generation with a sense of humour and a tendency to shout for attention. Time will tell whether that attention is well-deserved.
Royal Scottish Academy »
The Mound, Edinburgh EH2 2EL
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