RSA Edinburgh: SSA | VAS Open Exhibition

Sam Shendi 2
Sam Shendi 2

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Until 30th January

Following the first successful venture together in 2018, the SSA | VAS Open is the second exhibition in partnership between the Society of Scottish Artists and Visual Arts Scotland

The SSA was founded in 1851 with the aim to show controversial and unexpected art introducing impressionist work by Gauguin, Matisse and Van Gogh, Picasso and Edvard Munch. It continues in the spirit of its founders by highlighting innovative new artists. VAS was founded in 1924 as the Scottish Society of Women Artists by William McDougall to assist his daughter, Lily who was not recognised in professional male-only art circles. Today, the organisation is open to all painters, sculptors, ceramicists, crafts, photographers.

Art is all about challenging perceptions to make us view the world – people, places, society, ideas – in a fresh light and aesthetic form. Presenting ‘the Shock of the New’ for the 21st century, the Open features the work of 150 artists selected from 2,500 entries worldwide. 

At the Royal Scottish Academy, as you come up the stairs to the Upper Galleries, you will first encounter ‘Dogs’ by recent graduate Emelia Kerr Beale – a large-scale sculpture of a pure white, mythical gazelle-dog creature, with long neck and spindly legs. This was given a Merit award by the Arusha Gallery.

Emelia Kerr Beale - Dogs
Emelia Kerr Beale – ‘Dogs’, steel, plaster finished with Conté (compressed graphite powder mixed with wax).


Capturing the eye are the luminous blocks of colours of ‘Triptych’ by Rowena Comrie, a most pleasing composition with its interlinked layers of blue, green, yellow and bleeding splash of red.

Around the walls, abstract paintings abound, such as ‘Climate Precipice’ by Rowan Paton, a striking and most dramatic landscape of a craggy mountain or perhaps a glimpse of the Antarctic, shards of melting icebergs, with a dark, black cloud, perhaps an oil slick.  The Open Eye Gallery selected this work for an award, giving Paton a future solo exhibition. 

Damien Cifelli, an Italian-Scottish artist and designer has created ‘Artefacts of Tarogramma’ illustrating a hidden civilisation which only exists in found objects, masks, fabulous jewellery, figures, and architecture models. Similar in concept to ‘The Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’ by Damien Hirst at the Venice Biennale (2017), Tarogramma is a small-scale work of inventive imagination and wit. 

Damien Cifelli, Artefacts of Tarogramma
Damien Cifelli – ‘Artefacts of Tarogramma’ (detail), wood, plaster, ceramic, metal, fur, polymer, silver, leather, stone, cotton.


The vision of a modern urban landscape is William Braithwaite’s ‘Concrete Multitude’, a series of 49 miniature apartment blocks – which won the Richard Coley Award for Sculpture.

Concrete Multitude, William Braithwaite
William Braithwaite – ‘Concrete Multitude’, concrete.


If you saw a lost glove hanging on a railing this winter, you may be bemused by the scatter of  black gloves created by Mark Houghton, ‘Left,’ made not of leather but cast in bronze.  

Mark Houghton - Left, bronze
Mark Houghton – ‘Left’, bronze.


The Cordis Trust showcases craftsmanship featuring all manner of materials from weaving to basketry. Sarah Jane Henderson specialises in embroidery to explore pattern, colour and texture with a childlike freedom of expression to denote an underlying emotional insight. 

The ornate ballroom-like galleries around the RSA are ideal spacious grand salons to present large sculptures and installations, fine furniture, jewellery, applied arts, crafts, decorative textiles, prints and paintings.

In the central Salon we can see the work of Sam Shendi, quirky, candy-striped tubular, twisted constructions, ‘Mermaid’ and ‘Hidden Symbols’, and the rather surreal work by Eve Watson – her weird but wonderful ‘Playing with Glass’ features a chair and a Zimmer frame, transformed into rather alien objects. 

Sam Shendi, Mermaids and Hidden Symbols
Sam Shendi – ‘Hidden Symbols’, stainless steel.


Eve Watson, Playing with Glass
Eve Watson – ‘Playing with Glass’, glass, found objects, glue, varnish, wax.


As well as the awards mentioned above, several other galleries, art patrons and institutions have given generous cash prizes and exhibition space. Also see the calendar of events, performances, talks and hands-on demonstrations. The rich heritage of these two prestigious art organisations brings together their shared premise, past and present, to find, encourage and show genre-busting, ground-breaking art.  

This SSA|VAS Open presents an exemplary, multi-disciplinary selection of contemporary arts and crafts, commissions, established artists and young graduates, offers the opportunity to view the most imaginative, exciting and perhaps, unexpected, controversial, artwork being created today. 

The Mound,
Edinburgh EH2 2EL

Admission £3/£2, catalogue £2.

Image: Sam Shendi – Mermaid, stainless steel

Grateful acknowledgements to Vivien Devlin for this review. See here also.


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