‘A Colourfully Creative Summer Garden of Art and Design’: the 198th RSA Annual Exhibition

Alison Harper, 'Goddess of Can't be Bothered', 2023, ink and pastel on paper
Alison Harper, 'Goddess of Can't be Bothered', ink and pastel on paper

RSA Annual Exhibition

Mon - Sat 10:00 - 17:00, Sun 12:00 - 17:00

From: 11 May 2024

To: 16 Jun 2024

Royal Scottish Academy of Art and Architecture
The Mound
Edinburgh & the Lothians

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Now in its 198th year, the RSA Annual Exhibition represents a commitment to supporting excellence in the visual arts in Scotland across painting, sculpture, film, printmaking, photography, design and architecture. From a record number of open submissions, an inspired showcase of art work was selected by the exhibition’s Convener Wendy McMurdo and her Deputy Jude Barber. 

A broad theme is linked to the quotation by Voltaire, ‘We must cultivate our garden’, from his philosophical novel, Candide; in other words, you should create your own world and personal aesthetic as a metaphor for curiosity to learn something new every day. The diverse, dynamic spectrum of artwork observes portraits, land, sea and cityscapes, human society, heritage and natural environment.

Sam Drake depicts a most evocative scene, August II in which the serious young man, incongruously overdressed for a summer day, slouches in his chair and stares into the distance in languid, dreamlike mood. In contrast, three swimmers happily splash about in the pool, the sun bathing their faces amidst the cool, glistening aqua-green water.  Quietly reminiscent of the intriguing character, Tadzio in ‘Death in Venice’, it reflects a meditation on the allure of beauty and the inevitable loss of youth and love. 

Sam Drake, 'August II, 2023'. oil on linen
Sam Drake, ‘August II’, oil on linen

A stunning screenprint by John McKechnie captures the shimmering shoreline of Calgary Bay with its white shell sand and turquoise water on the Isle of Mull. Calgary comes from the Gaelic for ‘beach of the meadow’, referring to the grassy pasture where tiny wild flowers blossom in summer. The translucence of the shallow, sun-dappled sea lapping the beach is so realistic and given the title, is this the image of a wee dog illustrated top left? 

John Mackechnie RSA, 'Calgary Bay - Dog Walk', screenprint
John Mackechnie RSA, ‘Calgary Bay – Dog Walk’, screenprint

With a vibrant, vivacious burst of colour, Rowan Paton’s work can be characterised by imagined visual space such as Where the good people go who cannot stay. Amidst the view of rolling green field and craggy grey hill, a rainbow storm of rose-pink, blue and splash of yellow sweeps over the surreal landscape. Paton has always been fascinated by the lure of mountains since holidays on Arran as a child: ‘It really stuck in my psyche… embellished brightly with paint, with life and daubs of humour.

Rowan Paton, 'Where The Good People Go Who Cannot Stay', 2023, acrylic, collage print, mixed media on Belgian linen
Rowan Paton, ‘Where The Good People Go Who Cannot Stay’, acrylic, collage print, mixed media on Belgian linen

Do take time to explore the brilliantly curated selection of artwork in Room V, where the artists share a passion to depict linear shapes, architectural blocks and abstract geometric pattern.

A master in the art of all manner of printmaking, Bronwen Sleigh is inspired by man-made urban and industrial environments. The lithograph Rue de Bord du L’eau is an intricate design of criss-crossing geometric forms to represent the elongated lines and sharp shapes of interconnected roads, pavements, tall buildings and open spaces between. Such extraordinary precision of draughtsmanship. 

Bronwen Sleigh RSA (Elect), 'Rue du Bord du L’Eau', pen, pencil and gouache over lithograph
Bronwen Sleigh RSA (Elect), ‘Rue de Bord du L’Eau’, pen, pencil and gouache over lithograph

Paul Furneaux is an eminent artist who specialises in the delicate artistry of Japanese watercolour woodblock printing (mokuhanga). The title Rain City III also suggests a study of urban architecture and this series of overlapping blocks and squares is meticulously textured and ‘weathered’ to illustrate stone, wood, concrete and steel. The use of soft pale shades of olive green, mustard, grey and tobacco brown creates a most pleasing, cool composition. 

Paul Furneaux RSA, 'Rain City III'. Mokuhanga on panel
Paul Furneaux RSA, ‘Rain City III’. Mokuhanga on panel

Based at Creative Spaces on the Marchmont Estate in the Scottish Borders, Richard Goldsworthy  sources logs and branches from fallen trees in a storm. ‘My practice is centred on creating sculptural forms in wood, carving, sanding and burning to expose and celebrate its natural features.’ Following this theme of shape and structure of the artwork in Room V, Goldsworthy’s majestic column of rounded, octagonal cubes contrasts the smooth polished surface with charred, blackened willow wood, highlighting the myriad knots, deep cracks, swirling veins of the natural grain. 

Richard Goldsworthy, 'Column', 2021, part-charred willow
Richard Goldsworthy, ‘Column’, part-charred willow

One of several Invited Artists, Helen de Main presents her impressive social history Installation We Want the Moon, which illustrates the 2018 campaign for equal pay by women employed at Glasgow City Council. The title comes from a placard for a previous protest for equal pay in 1971 by the feminist activist Sheila Rowbotham. Thus, fifty years later, the slogan is reproduced on a series of hand-dyed and screen-printed textile banners. Helen also includes the text of personal testimony from her interviews with the women, as well as charming cartoon images to spread powerful political feminist messages in a humorous manner. 

Helen de Main, 'We Want the Moon', screenprints on fabric, paper and mixed media
Helen de Main, ‘We Want the Moon’, screenprints on fabric, paper and mixed media

Around the salons of the RSA is a diverse range of imaginative portraits, such as Angela O’Connell’s Designer Handbag Junkie, in which the piercing dark eyes of a young punky girl in pigtails peer out from behind a masked face: little gold bags frame her eyebrows, a Gucci painted mouth, her forehead and neck adorned with the iconic logo of Louis Vuitton.

Angela O'Connell, 'Designer Handbag Junkie', 2023, oil on canvas
Angela O’Connell, ‘Designer Handbag Junkie’, 2023, oil on canvas

Alison Harper has a most unique style of figurative work and here presents the alluring and enigmatic image of Goddess of Can’t Be Bothered. Her quizzical expression focuses on disjointed, Picasso-esque eyes and mouth on her large oval head, the face bathed in a soft ink and pastel purple and amber watery wash. This mysterious Goddess is immediately reminiscent of the haunting portraits of the lost, lonely, wild-haired ladies by Pat Douthwaite. 

‘I have always been an admirer of Henri Matisse who notes that it is essential to look at everything as if seeing it for the first time… a fresh and innocent vision, as though a child, to express oneself in an original, personal way’. Alison Harper

Alison Harper, 'Goddess of Can't be Bothered', 2023, ink and pastel on paper
Alison Harper, ‘Goddess of Can’t be Bothered’, ink and pastel on paper

Another charismatic portrait is of Astrid, by Moira O’Fee, in which the young girl stares at the viewer with a rather perplexed, soulful look; a clutched fist of fingers covers her mouth, elbow resting on her knee as she cowers with shoulders hunched in a selfie hug. Perhaps a typical teenager wanting to hide away in her own private space. Again, quietly enigmatic and poignant in its portrayal of human emotion.  

Moira O'Fee, 'Astrid', oil on board
Moira O’Fee, ‘Astrid’, oil on board

The RSA Annual exhibition also includes a Memorial selection as a tribute to Academicians who passed away over the past year. They include the artist, designer and dramatist, John Byrne, (1940-2023) whose colourful 2005 portrait Black Guy in Hat is so joyous, from the musician’s broad grin and overall sense of love of life and jazzy rhythm. It certainly captures Byrne’s extraordinary dramatic talent, from painted page to theatrical stage.

John Byrne RSA, 'Black Guy in Hat', oil on canvas
John Byrne RSA, ‘Black Guy in Hat’, oil on canvas

This is indeed a flourishing, well-cultivated Summer garden of art and design, which clearly illustrates a search for inspirational creativity and vision. With hundreds of affordable artworks, many under £500, buyers can spread the cost over 10 interest-free monthly instalments with the Own Art scheme. Roll on the 199th and 200th Annual Exhibitions!

With thanks to Vivien Devlin for this review.

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