Thursday, November 21, 2019

RUA Annual Exhibition

In the Wings by Cara Gordon

A slightly edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 17 November.

Considering the dearth of open submission exhibitions in this country, it’s remarkable how few artists from the Republic submit work for the Royal Ulster Academy (RUA) Annual Exhibition. The submission process for the RUA is less irksome than that of the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) and the odds on being accepted are much higher. One in four submissions were accepted at the RUA show this year whereas it was around one in nine at the RHA. The RUA allows online submission costing £15 while at the RHA you must transport your work to the venue and pay €20. This leads to the annual debacle at the RHA where 100s of artists must queue up in a very public way at a circumscribed date and time to collect their rejected work. A more thoughtful process would surely aim to avoid this annual via dolorosa. One of the reasons for the discrepancy in terms of acceptance between the two academies is that the RUA exhibits only two works per academy member whereas the RHA allows six per member. Not all RHA members take up the full allowance but 4, 5, or 6 works by an artist is not uncommon. The net result of all this is that the RUA’s exhibition has a more democratic spread – there’s more variety. This does not of course mean that the quality is necessarily any better. It’s also noticeable that prices seem lower at the RUA – an impression supported by the healthy sprinkling of red dots when I visited early in the run.

While it may have an enlightened submission process the RUA sadly continues to be homeless – a fact bemoaned by its current president Betty Brown in the  exhibition catalogue. The show, as has become customary in recent years, is held on the 5th floor of the Ulster Museum. There’s the usual mixture of the good, the bad and the ordinary. But even the most rigorous judge will find much to enjoy. You look for trends and themes at these shows and I was struck by the number of works featuring trees, or landscapes where trees are prominent.  Notable amongst these were Gillian Cullen’s Beaulieu Wood, a virtuoso study in pencil and Robert Russell’s Morning Light, a beautifully composed etching of the sun rising on a tree-adorned landscape. David Crone, a hardy annual at the RUA, gets up much closer to this subject with Asleep with Trees. Also amongst the trees are Sanctuary by Elizabeth Bullock McFarland (a skillful exercise in tricky media: egg tempera and watercolor) and Elizabeth Magill’s lithograph In Two Parts. There are other arboreal studies deserving of mention by Keith Wilson, Margaret Arthur, Lisa Ballard, Michael Durning, Linda Plunkett and Vincent Sloan.

One of the more unusual exhibits is Tribe by Helen Merrigan Colfer, a five-piece sculpture in steel, resin and granite that is a tour de force of craft. Each member of this assemblage of elaborately decorated figures is a standalone work of art. Together they make up the sinister denizens of some infernal, but stylishly accoutered, tribe. The family-like composition of the group could lend itself to a Freudian interpretation. Carolyn Mulholland has two very contrasting works on show:  A portrait bust of Samuel Beckett showing him in all his hawk-featured austerity and severity; and In Time, an elegant glass work with elaborate geometric patterns.

Video works often get scant attention at these group shows because viewers are generally reluctant to hang about for the requisite few minutes it takes to watch the complete work. Woodfellas by Philip McDowell, a gangster animation, is certainly worth pausing for. It’s an amusing and strangely sinister take on the Martin Scorsese film Goodfellas. The characters are hinged marionettes in gangster suits going about their bloody business punctuated by wise guy dialogue. A poignant note is struck by Home – another animation, by Rhea Hanlon and Méabh Gilheany, where the comforts of home are juxtaposed with the dubious alternative of the park bench. The work was inspired by the issue of homelessness in Northern Ireland. This is a rare foray into social issues amongst the exhibits although Joy Gerrard’s Protest Crowd (The North is Next) has also got an axe to grind.

Cara Gordon’s In the Wings at first glance seems to be a charming portrayal of little girls about to go on stage to show their ballet skills. However, on closer inspection you notice the fragments of advertisements for plastic surgery and various body modification services. The title suddenly becomes more resonant as we realize what’s ahead of these happy innocents. There’s an unusual work by the old Northern warhorse Neil Shawcross – he puts aside his red paint and surprises us with large and lively portrait of a black bull. The energy and primitive feel of the work suggests ancient cave painting. The title, Amada’s bull, tells us that Shawcross has taken his inspiration from the Temple of Amada – the oldest Egyptian temple in Nubia. Another lively and somewhat malevolent animal on view is Austin Clarke’s Bad Dog – there are intimations of Basil Blackshaw in this piece but I doubt if Basil would have included those teeth. Jennifer Trouton demonstrates that nothing whatever is by art debarred in The Invisible Past – a photorealist study of a crumpled old blanket.

Portraits abound but mostly not the stiff depictions of local worthies that we associate with the academy. Many are personal and quirky. I like my yearly encounters with Michael Connolly at the RUA and his June’s Lover does not disappoint. There’s a subtly surreal portrait, In Blue, by Tom McClean, a winsome self-portrait by Rebecca Jane Dolan, and a study in melancholy (I See You in Feathers) by Catherine Creaney. It comes as some surprise to encounter the comedian Colin Murphy in these august surroundings. The mischief-maker and scatology-merchant from the Blizzard of Odd has produced a very competent self-portrait which depicts a figure imbued with gravitas and adorned with stolid glasses. Murphy is clearly a man of many parts.

Last Thatch in Galway City by Stephen Shaw seemed at first glance to be a photograph preserving a picturesquely decrepit old house. In fact its’a very skillful water-colour in photorealist style – no mean feat. Another accomplished watercolor is John Cooney’s Winter Turf, Donegal – a minutely detailed landscape. Both the RUA and the RHA have female presidents at the moment. Betty Brown from the RUA exhibited at the RHA’s annual show and Abigail O’Brien returns the compliment with Why Would You Go on Half Cocked. This is a shimmering, sensuous, almost abstract image of a high-performance car lit from above and on all sides.

While the exhibition as a whole tends towards the safe and the figurative, there are deviations. One of the invited artists is Cathy Wilkes, a Northern Irish artist who lives and works in Glasgow and who represented Britain in the 2019 Venice Biennale. Her Untitled consists of a pair of small frames hung side by side – each one devoid of content apart from a blank sheet of paper, yellow in one and white in one in the other. It’s polymer gravure on chine-colle paper we are told. You can use your imagination if you like, or admire the quality of the frames. I’d prefer to walk on by muttering “passé”.

John P. O’Sullivan
November 2019