Joanna Lyczko & Seila Susberg 'Octopi' [2011] ©the artist

Joanna Lyczko & Seila Susberg ‘Octopi’ 2011 ©the artist

Adorning the banners which currently hang between the columns of the iconic RSA building is an image which has the potential to become as iconic as the structure which it embellishes. Joanna Lyczko and Seila Susberg’s Octopi (2011) draws viewers inside with ominous tentacles to an exhibition showcasing work made by the crème de la crème of last year’s Scottish art school graduates. This amphibious grasp which drags viewers up the central staircase is stopped dead by the imposing Black Gates (2011) by Clare Flately, the first exhibit in the stellar display. This is a fabulous juxtaposition of forces, and the first nugget of evidence to suggest that the curation of this substantial fifty-six strong troupe has not been spared consideration and contemplation despite volume and scale.

Octopi and additional photographs by Lyczko and Susberg are located in the first room. The two Hairy works are interesting associates for the exhibition’s hallmark image. The models within this pair both mask themselves and define themselves with their hair. Duality is experienced in the portrait of the girl with the octopi on her back too, for although we cannot see her face, we can assume that her personality is akin to that of the animal which is selected to conceal her. Although she has the power to stick to things, become attached, and act as a functioning being in her chosen environment, she also has the power to sting when provoked. We all know people like that – amenable and placid until something really ticks them off. Even if such in depth meaning was not intentional, the way in which the image is presented is what makes it special. Like I said from the offset, this has the potential to be an iconic image. Despite the interesting interpretation of inner significance which can be drawn from it, it is, above all, simply a very beautiful photograph; there is such subtlety evoked in tone and the sensation of wet, dead, flesh on living human skin conveyed sends shivers (slithering) down the spine.

Mary Stephenson 'Mum' [2011] ©the artist

Mary Stephenson ‘Mum’ 2011 ©the artist

In the main gallery space there is the work of another talented photographer, Mary Stephenson. Unlike the figures in the Aberdeen duo’s work, Stephenson’s subjects face us frontally and are surrounded by a plethora of accoutrements pertaining to their personality, their interests and their roles within society. The photographs appear to comment on how material objects, although they are produced en masse, arrive in our lives not through mere chance, but because we, as beings, attract and collate them. This is perhaps why brand-named foods, flashy cleaning products, desirable machines and edifying books all appear handmade in a crafted, sympathetic and homely manner. The most striking image of the lot is that entitled Mum (2011) as the personality of the subject is not at all one which one would anticipate a conventional mother to have.  Mum is not sitting demurely, waiting to greet her child. She instead rests her forearms on her outspread legs confidently like a surly teenage thug and ‘greets’ the viewer, or artist, rather, with a facial expression that suggests that the last thing she wants to be called is ‘mummy’ or be requested to sew on a button. Beyond this churlish, but magnificent, woman is her painting. It is aside from herself, the only real thing in the photograph – how clever. Perhaps the role of objects, documented over the course of the series, is not so complimentary in this image, for what she consumes is false, but what she creates is real.

Although the work of these photographers is very different in appearance, effectively they could, on some level, be grappling with the same issue; carving out identity of individuals in a globalized world where almost everything, and everyone, has the potential on occasion to appear soulless. One artist who tackles this factor head-on is Chris Wells. Grand scale combined with intricate detail and an ethos of despair makes his drawings reminiscent of both the paintings of the early Northern Renaissance artists, Bosch and Brueghel, and scenes from a Where’s Wally book. Injected into this already curious combination is a great deal of cynicism and an impressive wit. As you explore Married and Divorced 1 and 2, you get an insight into the struggle of an acidic and frank young contemporary artist. It is absolutely refreshing. Wells confronts the viewer by admitting that the only way one can really be a great artist today is to realize, and to overcome, that any conventional way of representing your thoughts has probably been done to death before you. Furthermore, when attempting to formulate something innovative, in a time when great works of art are cheapened to pixels on a screen, it is no wonder that young art students have the potential to come across as somewhat naïve. This is superbly conveyed through depicting Raeburn’s iconic skating reverend Robert Walker being dragged over a vetoed image of the infamous Hello Kitty cat head, whilst, next door, at Gray’s no less, students are highlighted to be whiling away hours on Facebook; failing to experience anything in the real world which could potentially enlighten them creatively. St. Andrew’s saltire cleverly forms the foundation on which various characters humorously elucidate Wells’ message to imply the suffering he experiences as an artist striving to achieve a major breakthrough. Cleverly, a small replica of this image features in the second drawing of the pair next to the tag ‘Well, it’s no Guernica’. Well, yes, it is absolutely no Guernica, but, as his self-branded tombstone reiterates, at least he tried; and the results are indeed admirable. Black and white line drawing was an effective choice of form in which to convey this overall message, as it has connotations of the preparation process which goes into a final work of art. The drawings are, however, far from mere sketches.

The world explored in the pair of drawings, where everything seems so fast and trite, is the one which is deconstructed in an astute video by Rosamund Garrett. Virtually Nao delineates the routes of the first ship to navigate the Earth’s circumference back in the seventeenth century, a modern day flight and an internet connection trail. She effectively demonstrates how the era of globalisation is upon us and, moreover, just how information which once took two years to transmit can be relayed today in a matter of seconds.

Scott Liczernski’s architecture explores how to appropriately contain the inhabitants of Garret’s fast-paced generation in his architectural plans, through taking Renaissance ideals and applying them to a contemporary setting. The rudiments of the mathematically perfect Parthenon are propelled skywards in order to instate an innovative, almost, ultramodern Renaissance.  Computer generated advertising, office space and living quarters unite to bridge a divide between creativity and consumerism. Could this be a glimpse of what the prestigious buildings of the not so distant future will look like? It is not ridiculous to speculate.

Scott Licznerski The Depository of Memory [2011] ©the artist

Scott Licznerski The Depository of Memory 2011 ©the artist

The recurring theme of the exploration, rationalization and the control of the individual in a high octane globalized world is one of several themes which serendipitously appear to run through this mammoth gathering of fresh talent. As Glen Onwin RSA, exhibition convener states “We are not making a themed exhibition, but patterns do mysteriously emerge and themes do surface.” On the tail of this statement and noting the theme herewith outlined, I urge visitors to discern their own leitmotifs throughout their viewing experience. This exhibition offers a peek through a fascinating window into this exact moment in time, for on display are manifestations of current concerns articulated by bright young artists who have a gift to express now as it truly is.

 ‘RSA New Contemporaries 2012’ runs until 11 April 2012 at the Royal Scottish Academy Galleries, the Mound, Edinburgh. Open Monday to Saturday 10am – 5pm, Sunday 12noon – 5pm.


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About Fern Insh

Scottish Art Historian

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