Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The 137th Royal Ulster Academy Annual Exhibition

Detail from Post-Brexit by Rose McKelvey

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 11 November 2018

The 137th Royal Ulster Academy’s Annual Exhibition opened in Belfast last week at what is becoming its de facto home in the Ulster Museum. The ambitious plans announced in 2014 by then RUA president Colin Davidson to develop a new home and exhibition space at the listed Riddell’s Warehouse do not seem to have made much progress. However, “they are still ongoing” according to the new president of the RUA Betty Brown. “The building has been acquired by Hearth Historical Building Trust with a view to restoration and the RUA would aim to become the anchor tenant once restoration has been achieved.” Funding is an issue. The RUA could do with an enlightened entrepreneur or a champion on the Northern Executive – if there was a Northern Executive. In the current climate with no government in place and the Brexit debacle looming, it’s hard to see much movement towards achieving a permanent home in the foreseeable future.

Whatever about its temporary nature the 5th floor of the  Ulster Museum makes a fine setting for the annual show generously sponsored once again by KPMG. This year’s show seems livelier and more varied than usual – the RUA’s policy of allowing only two paintings per academician (compared to six at the RHA Annual Show) helps promote greater diversity. It’s also very noticeable how accessible the prices are - this seems confirmed by the healthy rash of red dots just a week after its opening.

Norman Rockwell famously said that  “If a picture wasn’t going very well I’d put a puppy dog in it.” Those susceptible to canine charm will be much taken by Heidi Wickham’s Tina – a portrait of an attractively winsome dog. However, art lovers too will appreciate this well-executed piece in charcoal, pastel and gesso. The work was so admired that it won two of the prizes on offer at the show. Wickham had another soulful dog on view confusingly called Black Bear. It was also an attractive work but it suffered a little from being lit in a way that bounced light back off its high gloss finish. Following on a trend from last year there was an abundance of portraits. RUA regular Michael Connolly continues with his quirky subjects - Sparrow and Meet and Greet featured some pastel people from his own personal Twilight Zone. Daniel Nelis’s Silver Medal Prize winning Untitled (November) is an elegant work that nods in the direction of Modigliani. Other portraits that snagged the attention were Nina, a beautifully alive and warm study by Susan Dubsky and John Cooney’s two characterful watercolours Sligo Farmer and John Cunningham, Ardara.

Brexit hasn’t gone unobserved according to a few of the  titles. Dermot Seymour’s attachment to bovine subject matter continues with his large painting of a cow being harassed by a goose. It’s a bit of a metaphorical leap to the accompanying title: Border Vicissitudes of Brexitaria. However, Ross McKelvy’s scores a more direct hit with Post-Brexit – one of the most dramatic and memorable images in the show. In this photographic study the prognosis goes beyond border bother to a distinctly Mad Max future as a bizarre, gas-masked figure tends a dying landscape while black birds wheel ominously overhead. Another land of lost content is portrayed in Cara Gordon’s They Used to Dance Here, a dark and atmospheric acrylic painting of an old Belfast dance hall.

Colin Davidson is back after a hiatus of a couple of years. He’s given himself a break from portrait painting by omitting the head from his large and impressive, Stride, which captures the nude figure in motion. Judith Logan’s The Kite Flyers offers us a flavour of that great Northern maverick John Luke - although she achieves her effect with coloured pencils rather than egg tempera. John Roch Simon’s mission in life is to make old masters more amenable to a modern sensibility. To this end he takes appalling liberties by inserting modern subjects into classic paintings and photographing them. The resulting images, The Two Johns - after Caravaggio and Cottage Girl 2017 – A Portrait after Gainsborough, have a quirky discordance that arrests the attention. Elizabeth O’Kane’s meticulous watercolour Duomo from Apartment Window, Florence also caught the eye.

The independent adjudicator for this year’s show was the estimable James Hanley, Keeper of the RHA. He selected the recipients of the RUA’s gold, silver and bronze medal prizes. The gold medal went to Jeffrey Morgan’s Last of Blackheath (7) curiously dedicated to the Scottish artist Mark Boyle who died in 2005. Boyle’s original claim to fame was the light shows he did for The Soft Machine at their UFO concerts back in the Sixties. Morgan’s work is a gloriously enigmatic painting of the rear view off a red-haired woman in a 50s style blue-polka-dot dress. It’s a symphony of colour illustrating a banal urban setting.

Works from the South are not as plentiful as in recent years however the print area was particularly  well served by Southern artists including three long-standing members of the Graphic Studio Dublin: Jean Bardon, Stephen Lawlor and James McCreary . Their four works (two by Lawlor) are impeccably-crafted examples of master printers at work. But each artist brings a very different individual tone: one elegant, one mysterious, and one surreal. A more recent Graphic Studio member Susan Early also contributes two fine etchings of Irish light houses. Other impressive works in the print mode included: Elizabeth Magill’s playful Skirt Tails which could be a Victorian skating party, David McGinn’s noiresque etchings, Anne Corry’s enigmatic Hidden Life, and Margaret Arthur’s beautifully layered Sunlight on a Distant Shore.

There was plenty of real quality amongst the photography. Michael Collins’ Dead Calm had a gorgeous painterly quality while Sharon Belton’s At Swim went for a more playful surreal mood. Sharon Murphy’s Aoife/Cordelia; Bruce Marshal’s Wicklow, 1980 which made much of milk bottles ; Tommie Lehane’s bleak Ice Skating Arena, and Barbara Freeman’s portentous Valley of the Gods also stood out. Gordon Ashbridge’s Balls combined a desolate image with space for metaphorical speculation.

There was some virtuoso performances in ceramics none more so than Stephanie Tanney’s Disconnection which created a mysterious piece whose simulated drapes would serve well in a Halloween tableaux.

Amongst the sculpture, Helen Merrigan Colfer’s See Nothing, Hear Nothing, Tell No One contains disturbing intimations of child abuse. Carolyn Mullholland’s minimalist Full Stop, and Jason Ellis’s carry no message beyond the clean beauty of their forms. Anthony Scott does what he does best with his glowering Warrior. Zoe Murdoch’s mixed media Angelus Vitus achieved a solid, stylish malevolence. I also liked Claire Mooney’s Shadows of the Past, a delicately wrought copper construct.

Talking of the past, the show also contained a tribute to Gladys Maccabe (an Honorary member of the RUA) in the form of a catalogue essay and an excellent example of her work. She died earlier in the year a few months short of her 100th birthday. In addition to her qualities as a painter, Maccabe was a hugely positive influence on the Northern Irish art scene for very many years. She recognized no barriers of religion or gender and was a zealous promoter of female artists in the North. She also distinguished herself by not shying away from the Northern troubles in works such as Barricades and Funeral of a Victim. She’s a real loss to Irish art.

John P. O’Sullivan
November 2018