Royal Scottish Academy: New Contemporaries

From the moment you enter, there is huge promise in this show. The use of the RSA building’s grand steps is inspired, and a declaration of quality and intent. If galleries are our modern places of worship, it is a walk-in invitation to a temple of art; and to an exhibition that seems a credit both to the work of Scottish graduates which it showcases, and to the Royal Scottish Academy for the way it is put together.

Greeting you on the steps, on the left, is Tess Vaughan’s Beast sculpture, a kind of mournful dragon-tadpole cross; it faces a second work, Hammer, across the stair, poised to peck like one of those nodding water toys. With Erin Fairley’s Orange Rope overhead, backed by some excellent photographic prints, and Emma Smith’s hugely amusing upturned red velvet curtains Transposition (Red and Gold) at the top – well, you could complain all this contemporary stuff would never fit in the sitting room but you’d want to try. I’d go for Beast in the stairwell (at £700).


The selectors chose work for this annual show by 72 students, mostly from Scotland’s five degree-awarding art schools, out of about 400 graduating last year; but also from the six architectural faculties.

This review has been delayed, because I was travelling when the show opened, and I have been working on a minor upgrade of this site, when it will be reposted.

But there’s a particular reason for looking in before it closes on April 8th; with 15 Glasgow School of Art students selected, several are getting their first real chance to show work disrupted or in some cases entirely destroyed in the disastrous fire at the Mackintosh Building. In that sense it’s a taster of the broader show recently announced for July, for 100 students who benefited from the Phoenix Bursary programme set up by the Scottish Government, to rebuild their portfolios.

Interestingly, Beast’s creator Tess Vaughan is one of the GSA class of 2014; her major piece inside the galleries’ only appears in the catalogue at the drawing stage. She was also selected for Bloomberg New Contemporaries down in London. It’s partly because of that name clash that when a selection of the RSA work goes on to the Fleming Collection in London in May, it will be titled as New Scottish Artists.

A few random samplings from upstairs, which I’m sure will differ from other’s choices. Moira Watson’s series of hanging bombs from MDF and Beech – Control. Money. Power – seems an exceptionally clever idea but perhaps ought to be on its own and be allowed to do what it does – which is mostly blow away anything else in the room.

Control, Money, Power, by Moira Watson

Control, Money, Power, by Moira Watson

Ben Martin’s Line and Weight, as widely reported elsewhere, won the new Glenfiddich Prize of £10,000 with a three month residency and exhibition. The £40,000 on offer at the RSA in cash and kind add up to nearly the Turner Prize; the comparison may be stretching it a bit, but Glenfiddich alone makes for a hugely generous award, with painter Alison Watt among the judges. It’s an incubation centre, maybe, for future Turner contenders, with the prize hosted in Glasgow this year.


Ben Martin's Line and Weight

Ben Martin’s Line and Weight

I have a personal weakness for seeing work from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, former home of the great Alberto Morocco, and Gray’s School of Art from Aberdeen, which fostered the late Sylvia Wishart as student and teacher, alongside the central belt GSA and Edinburgh College of Art. The 5th contender, with just two students, is Moray School of Art.

Another big winner was Edward Humphrey second recipient of the annual “Fleming-Wyfold Bursary”, the Fleming Collection’s award, a Duncan of Jordanstone graduate, for his winning video installation Another Fiction. He gets a bursary of £10,000, plus £4,000 production costs for the next year.

It is interesting to look for the influence, real or imagined, of other artists, particularly those trained or shown in Scotland, making themselves felt on this new generation. Echoes of Martin Boyce’s Turner Prize show in Tim Dalzell’s mounted Drawing At 32,000,000 Metres, say, or David Shrigley in Kate Gallagher’s work, Tracey Emin’s tapestries (or Grayson Perry’s?) in Caitlin Hynes’ Tread Softly. All a matter of guesswork.

In that everlasting effort to capture Scottish weather, landscape and light honestly comes Ellis O’Connor’s magnificent Spirit of the Mountains, from mixed media on canvas. The expanse and the harshness are enhanced by the drips down the canvas as a shroud of dripping water (£3,200).


Ellis O’Connor’s Spirit of the Mountains; Glacial Mass features in the catalogue


By no means everything is brilliant, and everyone will have their ho-hums, and a few will generate positive dislike. The colleges are represented proportionally; some worthy but ponderous introductions by art school staff give the catalogue’s text a bureaucratic, box checking feel.

But as with any college show, the interest is partly in picking the future talent; as upstairs, say, the work of Usama al Kindi, from the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, titled The Architecture of Olfaction.

Usama al Kindi, [catalogue title] The Architecture of Olfaction.

Usama al Kindi, [forground, catalogue title] The Architecture of Olfaction.

The treats continue. Robbie Hamilton’s Wing, Error, Primary, Situation 2, I want you to walk, Situation 1; is a set of industrial trompe l’oeil, in emulsion on cement board; I’d go for the set. Lucas Battich’s colour suite #1-5 have a science fantasy feel – they will be to some tastes, not particularly to mine, but they beg interesting questions on technique and meaning.

Downstairs, Christol Freuhøl Sorensens The Melting Diamond would demand attention in any show for sheer technical ingenuity. Even from the side, Richard Phillips-Kerr’s unmissable naked Avatar seems to twitch and scratch. It’s got a fairground quality but is skillfully set off at the end of the room by Kirstin Clark’s 23rd June 2014, of a girl pacing in cubes – in flour and film.

There are sounds approaching cacophony in places as you pass through the show – I suppose that’s what you get in an art gallery these days. There are multiple sound installations; I wonder when we will start getting mannikins at classical concerts. They include one that you only slowly notice surrounding the building’s front pillars, from Deb Marshall’s Kairos I .

The artist Sarah Sheard is surely going to make a name for herself – Her Bellany Box for £399.99, as ever joking with her prices, and her subjects, describing the late painter, who took a few pokes over art students’ supposed lack of basic skills, as ‘not a dedicated follower of fashion – keep those brushes going’. The Doig Drawers a bit higher at £799.99.

In the same room, the Scottish voices of Abigail Blair’s Surveillance/ sousveillance has six red dots by it; these are for the low-priced for the hard back and paper back, of what appear to be surreptitiously taped and very Scottish conversations.

You can read, or listen to, these stolen anonymous voices (presumably read by actors?) from Scottish train journeys, to the Dundee library (a rough place by all accounts ) to two female art students discussing how to secure 333 red condoms, to the Cafe Nero Dundee ‘female phones mum’ or “radisson blue hotel Belfast drink couple”. It will baffle or intrigue the tourists, maybe, but like other works worthy of a room to itself.

GSA may be looking for a larger splash for its Phoenix show later on, but keep a weather eye as you go round on what is one selection of the talent from that group. Unmissable in the main hall: Deux Ex Machina, of Stairlifts, Steel, Glass beads, Electronics, by Joe Hancock, incorporating two moving stairlifts.

Joe Hancock's Deux Ex Machina

Joe Hancock’s Deux Ex Machina

At the time of the fire it was in the central gallery space at the Mackintosh building, called the Mackintosh Museum. The fire did not reach the space, but it was badly damaged by smoke; it was his only piece in his graduate show. (He chooses not to disclose the price, but notes that it took 1,200 hours of work, and used about £5,000 of materials.)

Also on show the work, alongside that by Dalzell or Søresen, is that of Alex Kuusik, who lost his entire installation in the fire. Last June he could only show a photograph he took of it.

To close: it wasn’t just me who thought this RSA show a stand-out.


RSA New Contemporaries ArtsPress


Nice to see a use of Fringe-style star sticker on the poster. Perhaps it’s time ArtsPress put in four of its own ****. Make that ******** just for a place on the hoardings……

More seriously there was praise for this show across the board, remarkably in the Herald and The Scotsman on the same day as well as the Skinny and the Times. If the links are trouble, plain-speaking Duncan Macmillan is quoted that it’s ‘really interesting and full of promise’ and the Herald’s Jan Patience that it’s ‘a vision of art’s future’.


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