This month, the Royal Scottish Academy presents its 193rd annual exhibition, showcasing the very best works from its academicians across Scotland. Earlier this week I headed over to Prince’s Street to see what the Academy had to offer.
I walked through the building’s enormous columns and into the gallery, finding a maze of open-plan rooms before me, unsure which turn to take. I placed myself down on a bench before a painting that caught my eye, Leon Morocco’s Sunlight, Garden Shed, taken by its naive simplicity. A single stream of light from an unseen window is cast across the workbench of a charmingly-typical garden shed, undoubtedly the resting place of some old man who spends his Sunday afternoons tending to his garden with serenity. A testament to the unassuming beauty of the everyday.
Behind me, one of those infernal children who can be found shrieking or stamping along the corridors of our larger galleries exclaimed in reference to some other piece, “that one’s cool!”. And I was reminded of the essential reason as to why I fell in love with art: not for its political power or intellectual complexity, but for its ability to access that oft-forgotten, purely sensual part of us which finds its truest expression in childhood but remains as a kernel throughout our adult lives. And so, as I walked through the rooms of the Royal Scottish Academy, I avoided those pieces that discussed immigration, liberation, Brexit, Trump, and the rest – for we have books and news and essays for such things – and instead found myself sitting before works that struck me in their aesthetic power.
Doug Cocker’s Songlines, an array of geometric colourful wooden pieces here intertwined and there alone, sat on the wall of one of the gallery’s smaller rooms as an epitome of what I searched for. Unavoidably reminiscent of childhood shape-sorter toys, Songlines presented to me in perfect form the same childish jubilance that the boy behind me had expressed. Later I came to Graeme Wilcox’s Disappearing Man which, in its depiction of a hardened old man caught between life and death and slowly dissolving, tapped into a pain and a fear essential to our relationship with death, one beyond any verbal description. Downstairs, Janette Kerr’s glacial Fjortende Julibukta – awesome, terrifying, and massive – expressed the Romantic sublime in all its terrible otherness; before this two-panel piece, I was lost in a crashing wave of ice, mist, and rock that stood before me with noble enormity.
Moving beyond the antiquated constraints of the Academy’s past, the exhibition presents a wide array of artworks, covering everything from abstract expressionism to portrait busts to pieces far beyond academic categorisation. But the most powerful works, the ones that catch and hold the eyes of visitors, are those that are confident enough in their beauty to feel no need to appeal to meaning or message. Indeed, Susan Sontag’s “erotics of Art” might well have found suitable subject-matter in this month’s rooms of the RSA.
The RSA’s 193rd Annual Exhibition runs until 11th December 2019.
Images: Ellen Blair