Duncan Macmillan on New Contemporaries at the RSA
Despite an over-use of words, the graduate talent from Scotland’s art schools shows imaginative and thought-provoking solutions
This is the 250th anniversary of the foundation of the Royal Academy in London and its president boasted recently that it was consequently the oldest art teaching establishment in the UK. That is not so however. The Trustees Academy in Edinburgh was founded in 1760 and so nine years earlier than the RA schools. When Edinburgh College of Art was created in 1909, the Trustees Academy was incorporated into the new institution, quite literally, for the staff and students of the old institution simply moved wholesale into the new one.
We have a very long tradition of art teaching and so this little piece of history seemed à propos as from that modest beginning we now have five art schools, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee and Moray, and once again with New Contemporaries the RSA celebrates the best of the talent from their degree shows.
There are just over 60 artists in the exhibition this year. The largest group is from Glasgow. Dundee and Edinburgh are not far behind. Aberdeen has eight graduates and Moray, the most recent and by far the smallest, has just one.
The work is as lively as you would hope and also very diverse. In an age of crumbling certainties it is right that our artists should not look for easy solutions and their search does take them to some strange places. What seems to be a figure in a voluminous gown is the very striking work that greets you as you enter. By Monica
Dritschel, it is an artist’s lay-figure dressed entirely in white sliced bread artfully cut into petal-like shapes. The artist tells us that it has to do with our relationship with food, but it stands on its own without that explanation.
That is often the case here. Reading the labels, I fear current art teaching pushes students to try to use words and so, seeking to explain what they have done, they sometimes forget that once it is out there the image will have its own life and meaning. That being so, it is all the more encouraging that there are so many strong images here. Nature triumphs over nurture, perhaps.
Robbie Spriddle’s three abstract compositions composed on a simple grid of squares of primary colours are a case in point. They have a pedigree going back at least to Mondrian, of course, but by the force of their presence they claim their independence. Nearby, Rowan
Crawford’s beautiful compositions made of rainbow coloured perspex are, he says, literally abstractions. The colour is extracted and isolated from photographs. Again the result stands on its own however. The same is also true of Chiara von Puttkamer’s work. She has made a small exhibition of 17 abstract paintings, all very different, but all bold and strongly painted.
Alan Aitken’s paintings have a similar
Her installation recalls with plenty of humour the domestic interiors of the Fife mining towns of her childhood
strength, but are of domestic subjects, much simplified. They are rendered in patches of thick-textured paint. It gives them a satisfying solidity and they become objects as much as images. Although the artist cites Heidegger in his explanation, we don’t need philosophy to understand his pictures. Doaa Yule is explicitly philosophical with texts, references to Plato and Bertrand Russell and an expository blackboard in the manner of Joseph Beuys. Here too the words seem redundant. The best piece is a set of three simple lines drawn in space, two black sticks and one a fluorescent tube, together more eloquent than all the texts.
Falling back on words can easily lead to illustration. Three bold paintings by Louis Bennett made up of bits of imagery from cartoons, comics and children’s history books set out, he tells us, to warn against “contemporary Britain’s preoccupation with a
misremembered partial history”. It is a worthy aim, but he is limiting himself by illustrating an idea in this way. There are echoes of Steven Campbell in his work and Campbell’s inspiration should lead him into more imaginative realms. Lucy
Buchanan, on the other hand, makes no pretension to deeper significance, but has delighted in letting her imagination off the leash to create a nostalgic fictional world in a series of miniature stage sets for a couple of 1970s characters she has invented.
Other artists have created stage sets on a bigger scale. Elise Bell, for instance, has made an installation recalling with plenty of humour the domestic interiors of the Fife mining towns of her childhood where, she infers, the Grandmothers of Methil ruled the roost. Edith Pritchett calls her work an extended self-portrait as a woman, a millennial and an artist, but she is not at all solemn about it, either. Her humorous drawings are a delight and are visually much more sophisticated than their imagery might suggest, and her rendering of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden as a Tinder Betrayal is a great image and nicely topical.
Several artists have assembled collections of small pictures and drawings as though the statement of a big single work was somehow too limiting, or perhaps simply not achievable. Hannah Mooney ,for instance, has produced a whole series of tiny paintings exploring purposefully the traditional genres of landscape and still-life. Her pictures do not seem derivative or dated, however, and are very accomplished. Taking this modest, small-scale approach seems to have allowed her to rediscover the enduring vitality of these genres. Tess
Glen has created two interiors hung with little, unframed drawings and watercolours. Jack Dunnett’s small pictures are equally intriguing and are like mysterious fragments of observed reality.
Working on a larger scale, David Rae takes a straightforward approach to landscape, though the carefully observed scenes that he paints, an abandoned club house, an urban park against a yellow twilit sky, or a group of semi-derelict buildings in front of a church, do not themselves seem straightforward. Observed reality is of course the province of the photographer and there are several good photographers here. Matthew
Buick’s pictures of two people peering through a crack in a fence and of a tiger in the zoo gazing into the distance past a child in a push-chair are nicely caught moments. Craig
Waddell’s portrait photographs are also very distinguished. Portrait painting is too often vitiated by being too beholden to photography. He has reversed that by informing his photographs from the example of portrait painting with a very satisfactory result.
Until 18 April
Clockwise from far left, Craig Waddell; Hannah Mooney; Robbie Spriddle; Louis Bennett; David Rae; Edith Pritchett