Royal Scottish Academy Open Exhibition

Quirky, but neither generic, nor tediously shocking; skillfully presented, and plenty for the Christmas browse, buying or not. That’s an early verdict on the Royal Scottish Academy’s Open exhibition, in the lower floor of the RSA building on the Mound from 29 November. One plus is to see the restored white Doric columns of the central room, which gives the whole space a feel of subterranean grandeur.

The highest price work in this year’s show is David Mach’s Sunimi, one of his coat hanger works, priced at £36,000. It’s Mach all over, but pretty impressive.

Royal Scottish Academy David Mach

Sunimi by David Mach

Joint second highest on the value front, after a quick early peek, are two works by Sarah Sheard, a recent Edinburgh College of Art graduate, both priced at £12,000. One of them is a sketchy painting on a tile, and the other, Robert White’s Drawers, which looked in the RSA like a flimsy set of half-open wooden drawers, that you could pick up for a few quid at a junk shop, if you were lucky.

Robert White's Drawers, by Sarah Sheard, Royal Scottish Academy Open show,

Robert White’s Drawers, by Sarah Sheard

I was too nervous to pull at the drawers – you can’t go fiddling with artworks – but it turns out this was a mistake. “The audience has to open them themselves,” says Sheard. “Each drawer has a lot of little square compartments. The first one is lots of very small paintings in each box. One of them has a display of crisps in it, one of them has a set of small chairs made out of matchsticks.”
At risk of spoiling the surprise, here’s her studio photograph:

Robert White's Drawers by Sarah Sheard, Royal Scottish Academy RSA Open,

Robert White’s Drawers by Sarah Sheard

“It took me about six months,” Sheard says. “But also in my work I am interested in how we price stuff. My degree show in June was an art market satire, about how we sell our work and make it after graduating. The price is not totally serious. I’m sure it’s going to shock a lot of people and think why is this so expensive, again it is just looking at how people do price their work.”

Sheard’s satirical degree show got some good reviews – here’s her excellent tumblr site = but for punters to buy at this price might still be a bit of a gamble – in fact, “If they did, it would be incredible,” she said. When she says six months work, she means on and off, because she has two day jobs to pay the rent, in an ice cream shop, and a picture framers.

If you are trying your luck in art as an investment, you could go with an artist who has been picked up by the Saatchi Gallery, and makes his appearance at the RSA with two paper cups, covered with detailed and thoroughly obscene miniature paintwork.

With the bigger piece – made with watercolour, ink, and acrylic, on a used paper cup, priced at £1,500 – Paul Westcombe scoops the longest title prize. It is called, if I transcribed it right: “Reach high for the stars, that lie hidden in your soul, for every dream precedes the goal.”

Paul Westcombe, Royal Scottish Academy RSA Open,

Reach High etc… by Paul Westcombe

The second, espresso-sized cup, is called simply “Don’t complain, just work harder.”

Paul Westcombe’s art is described on the Saatchi website as “wildly carnivalesque”. Desperately bored by his work as a car park attendant, he started painting on objects that came to hand, including toilet handles and mop handles. The RSA show got 40,000 visitors last year, but it may require a warning notice for the family audience about the coffee cups, or perhaps a barrier to keep small children a safe distance. A little like Grayson Perry’s pots, or Timorous Beasties tasteful bags for the Edinburgh International Festival a while back, study them closely before you add them to your party pack.

In case it appears that Sheard’s satirical approach is creeping into this article: the RSA open show is well worth a look. It’s beautifully hung, and there’s a good deal to study, in both art and architecture, and plenty of food for thought on the collecting front, or for a Christmas original. It might not be the Saatchi Gallery, but it’s compact, and often intriguing, well beyond the few works shown here. There is a rich selection this year, and its affordable. Try rewarding yourself with a visit in off-peak hours when there are not too many people about.

Personal favourites: I loved the News International Fruit Bowl, £1,200, by Leigh Charlson. A beautifully crafted, pale blue fruit bowl, decorated with favourite apples – Granny Smith, Royal Gala – and the warm-coloured pastel visages of Rupert Murdoch and everyone’s favourite tabloid editor, Rebekah Brooks.

News International, Leigh Charlson, Royal Scottish Academy RSA Open,

News International Fruit Bowl, by Leigh Charlson

As an ex-Scotsman staffer, I look forward to the Johnston Press Redundancy Bowl with many blank faces….

Starting at the lower end: “Snow Globe Swim” by Natasha Russell, is a hand-tinted (ie almost one of a kind) stone lithograph, and rewards a good close look, at £160 unframed. Capped and goggled figures swim in a steamy bath; snow flakes rise above; it has a witty, surreal detail to it. Russell was in the RSA’s New Contemporaries 2014 line-up.

Snow Globe Swim by Natasha Russell

Snow Globe Swim

Also for the budget conscious, I liked Cat Outram’s work in the Edinburgh Art Fair, and she is back here with a pleasing etching, Rutland Square, £150, edition of 50.
If I was looking for a serious issue to ponder about the RSA open show this year, it is the impact of the new policy of first-round submissions by digital image. That has meant that any artist from anywhere in the world can submit. International submission has always been permitted but the change to digital has facilitated it. The initial choices are made artist-blind.

The selection is then finalised, and slightly trimmed, on a viewing of the chosen original works. We don’t want to be parochial – introducing UK-wide and international works can only push up the standard, and it’s a very mixed and amusing show – but is the space for Scottish admissions, outside of academy members (who can submit one work) in danger of being squeezed?

The RSA selectors, one suspects, may have been a little startled to learn that this rather sweet, if perhaps suspiciously bright, painting featuring an Edinburgh bus, was submitted by one Nectarios Stamatopoulos of Kypseli, Athens.

Royal Scottish Academy RSA Open

The Athens of the North…

Then again it doesn’t look much like any Edinburgh intersection I have ever seen. Perhaps it is the bus to Edinburgh. By contrast, I really enjoyed Catherine Davison’s London Road (Calton Hill), a nice piece of windy impressionism of the auld place, one of the few old-fashioned painterly pieces in the show.

Catherin Davison artist Royal Scottish Academy

Catherine Davison’s Edinburgh view

One stand-out work, high on my list, though not a cheap outing, was Jessica Harrison’s Painted Lady (£4,500). She made a minor sensation with a video featuring eyelashes made of dead flies that was picked up by Perez Hilton. This work is a a found porcelain object which has been repainted with lacy tattoos.

Painted Lady by Jessica Harrison Royal Scottish Academy Open RSA

Painted Lady by Jessica Harrison

There are a decent sampling of conceptual curiosities. The artist David Farrar has submitted two works, that look like charcoal sketches of a footstool and plantstand, but are actually silkscreen works using the ash produced when they were burned. One picture on show is painted in peatbog. The artist Geri Loup Nolan delivered a pretty, mottled looking painting, made of “pigment and raindrops on canvas”, apparently en plein air.

Geri Loup Nolan, Evin Rain, Royal Scottish Academy RSA Open,

Evin Rain, by Geri Loup Nolan

There’s a larger than usual photography selection this year, tied to the digital submissions. In fact one work, Alex Bunn’s Defixion Tablet, was thought to be a sculpture, featuring a rat’s tail embedded in some kind of waxy stuff, but turned out to be a digital print. Craig Buchan’s photograph, of Friday Prayer on Arthur’s Seat, was interesting and in the current unfortunate context of drone strikes on ISIS and Scottish terror fears, a bold, even menacing juxtaposition.

To wrap up, the architecture. Highlights might include Konish Gaffney Architects submission of the Nuri-En House in Ravelston Dykes, which followed the principles of Japanese design with an external corridor to the south (nuri-en) and an internal corridor to the north (engawa). The wooden part-section model is priced at £750. I’m trying to ascertain if it’s actually been built.

Nur-En House Konish Gaffney Architects Royal Scottish Academy Open RSA

Nuri-En House by Konishi Gaffney Architects

But the outstanding piece is surely the Kettle Collective’s Solar Innovation Centre, a kind of spiralling Eiffel Tower of solar panels. The model is superb, but the real thing will stand 80 metres high, a proud piece of Scottish design in Dubai.
“We are in detailed design,” said Tony Kettle. “It has just been advertised in the journals in Dubai to go out to tender in the contractors to start building it.”

Solar Innovation Centre HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park Royal Scottish Academy

Solar Innovation Centre destined for Dubai, by Kettle Collective

The building would be a centre piece of the HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, and has already won two awards, including the Middle Eastern Architecture Award for Best Sustainable Project. It is clad in photovoltaic panels, and inspired by Islamic geometry, of perfect squares within squares, that are extruded into three dimensions. “It is half way between a Bedouin tent, and a spire,” Kettle said.

THE RSA Open Exhibition runs until 20 January 2015.

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