We are all familiar with the Ulster Museum; dinosaur bones, vintage cars, Neolithic tools, rare crystals and gemstones and of course, mummies in glass cases. But did you know the Ulster Museum is also one of the paramount venues for seeing contemporary art in Belfast? Tucked in amongst the aforementioned treasures is The Royal Ulster Academy’s 135th Annual Exhibition and it is a treasure in a league of its own.
Originally founded in 1879 as the Rambler’s Sketching Club and after undergoing various organisational changes it evolved as the Royal Ulster Academy in 1950. The Royal Ulster Academy is an artist led organisation which aims to celebrate, enrich and expand contemporary approaches to the visual arts. Each year the Academy hosts an Annual Exhibition in Belfast showcasing the work of Academy members, invited artists and artists selected through open submission.
This year’s exhibition encompasses every form of contemporary art imaginable; from video installations to sculpture, print making, painting, drawing, mixed medium and more. The exhibition has something to offer everyone from the Avant Garde art snob to the entry level novice. With over 200 pieces of work cramped into the gallery space it’s worth taking at least an hour or more to try and gain a sense of the vastness of the submissions to this year’s exhibit. The works are roughly organised within the space, but with the sheer volume of pieces it’s easy for the smaller, daintier and often more refined works to get lost amongst the haze of large colourful and demanding landscapes/portraits which do contribute to a sizeable amount of the works within the exhibit.
With a particular focus on sculpture from the 2016 entrants the often stagnant environment of the hung gallery space is disrupted by a number of compelling sculptural works. Whilst many of the works are left competing for attention when sharing a relatively small space in the centre of the gallery, one must bear in mind that with an open exhibition such as this one, it’s common for the curators focus to be on including as many works as possible within the show, and this is most definitely the case. This cluttered display gives the works an opportunity to inform one another and for the viewer to get in and amongst the pieces and explore the themes suggested by the artists with more vigour. When two, three or even four pieces are competing so closely for your attention, it demands a sense of concentrated isolation from the viewer when reading the works. Some stand out sculptural offerings include Amy Hamil’s, ‘Oceans’, a ceramic piece emulating a worn diary, Karen Gibson’s, ‘All that Remains, Chernobyl Series 5’, combines porcelain and 22 carat gold in a piece inspired by the structure of stackable Russian dolls to create a delicate and captivating work which holds its own. Larger more abstract pieces including Corban Walker’s ‘Untitled’ tessellated aluminium sculpture and Christine Campbell’s ‘Escape’ which consists of a wooden boat home to a colourful town built inside it, bring a diversity to the collection and allow for a move of attention from the mounted works.
That’s not to say that it’s sculpture that steals the show, of course, the incredible talents of the RUA artists see no end and the diversity amongst the painters, illustrators, printmakers and conceptual artists beggars belief. From life-like portraiture such as Jonathan Hall’s ‘Leavin’ Day’ to abstract canvas’ such as Chris Wilson’s ‘Realm’; the breadth of form presented in one gallery space is truly unique. Mixed media has a moment too within this year’s offerings with Maggie Deignan’s ‘Facebook’ and Bob Sloan’s ‘Head’ bridging the gap between form and medium. As we’ve seen from recent artistic ventures in Belfast, photography is an art form that is truly thriving in Northern Ireland and the RUA show isn’t going to disappoint for those passionate about the medium. Aidan Crawley’s ‘Missing’ and Stephen Bradley’s ‘Heavenlike’ are pieces that demand a moment of serene and stillness throughout the exhibit. For those seeking something more experimental and conceptual, Oona Doherty’s ‘Hard to be Soft’ video works offers a taste of where contemporary art is heading in today’s climate whilst Joanna Mules ‘ Caution Interactive Art Object’ which is a mixed media installation, invites the viewer to engage with ideas of what can and cannot be art.
From the classic to the contemporary, from traditional to transcending medium, the Royal Ulster Academy’s 2016 exhibition is a delectable journey into what is occurring in the Northern Irish art scene and beyond. Running until the 8th January 2017 it provokes thought, asks questions and offers an opportunity to reflect and investigate amongst a plethora of themes and content. The exhibit itself can be explored further through the Ulster Museums ‘Slow Art Sunday’s’ programme, which invite participants on a guided talk through the galleries, information for these events can be found at www.nmni.co.uk. For opening hours and for further information on the artists exhibiting visit www.royalulsteracademy.org where you can also view the works in question if unable to make it to the show.
Article featured in CultureHUB Magazine