19 January – 17 February 2019 The Royal Scottish Academy, Princes Street, Edinburgh
On entering the exhibition, held in the lower Academician’s rooms at The Royal Scottish Academy, one moves instinctively to the right where the title sign and information hangs. A fitting first work greets the viewer; Elizabeth Blackadder‘s jagged black and white Parrots, four of them tilted and arranged in a quirky manner on poles. Continuing anticlockwise to Aberdeen Ibadan Dronte Chook by Michael Agnew and Ade Adesina, I find a dodo, large enough to jump out of the frame, fixing the viewer with its bulls-eye, possibly with a nod to Edward Lear’s nonsense animals.
‘In that case,’ said the Dodo solemnly, rising to its feet, `I move that the meeting adjourn, for the immediate adoption of more energetic remedies–‘
`Speak English!’ said the Eaglet. `I don’t know the meaning of half those long words, and, what’s more, I don’t believe you do either!’ And the Eaglet bent down its head to hide a smile: some of the other birds tittered audibly.
`What I was going to say,’ said the Dodo in an offended tone, `was, that the best thing to get us dry would be a Caucus-race.’
from chapter 3 of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
While many of the works are black/white or in neutral tones, there is colour to be found in Elspeth Lamb‘s Hyne Awa series further on – a shocking pink sky above and blue down below where the savageness of the painted badger manages to overpower the red kite under a full moon.
A quarter of the way around the exhibition, it becomes apparent that the artwork’s numbers are moving backwards from fifty. Did the curator plan to start at Blackadder’s #1 only to have the viewers retrace their steps clockwise to #2? I consider changing direction but opposite is the work of the prestigious female artist, Joyce W. Cairns. Not only has she produced the painting with arguably the most depth, Head Study from the Deadly War series, but on 28 Nov 2018 she was appointed the first ever woman to be Director of the RSA in its 193 year history.
Initially unclear as to why the Head Study portrait was included, closer scrutiny reveals a long necked ornithological creature whispering into the girl’s ear. With eyes askance, the girl appears to be listening intently.
In conversation, Cairns reveals that she is currently too busy settling into her new role to finish the new painting that she started for this very event. Standing in front of Head Study she eloquently explains that its subject, the Bosnian War of 1992-1995 was, ‘like a merry go round where no-one was helping anyone, that this woman is expressing my feelings about the misery that war caused, the unrest of the soul’.
Later I went back past the door through which I entered to find that #2: a beautiful pen and ink print, Bird and Plant by the late Jack Knox which is redolent of Lear in its simple composition and humorous air.
The works are packed in with as many as 19 on one wall. Mentions must go to the child-like, stylised Owl for Megan by Michael Agnew (who inexplicably has another work at the opposite end of the room); the pencil line fragility of Will Maclean’s suggestion of wing as can be found on many a mountain path, feathers upright; and Littlejohn’s collage of paper-bird-boats in orange and pink with duck in flight. There is realist work (Busby, Guild) and concrete poetry too (the elegant work by Mackenzie with Paterson, and the fold-out Shetland Bird Names by Marion Smith, also on paper).
A vast range of bird life is encapsulated in these drawings: sculptures, poetry and other media, notably Eileen Lawrence‘s spacious Prayer Sticks, and Frances Pelly‘s soapstone trio depicting a subtle shrug of raven shoulders; touching hunger of sparrow young; and haughtiness of hen harrier. It is no wonder that one has a red dot (sold) at opening time.
All photos my own (with permission) except Joyce W Cairns. Title work: Frances Pelly Hen Harrier