Helen Flockhart’s Corsage (72cm x 49cm, oil on canvas) ©Helen Flockhart

This is a version of a story which I wrote for The Herald Arts supplement and which appeared on Saturday 12 November. Royal Glasgow Institute for the Fine Arts Annual Open Exhibition 2016, The Mitchell Library, Granville Street, North Street, Glasgow, G3 7DN. royalglasgowinstitute.org 
Exhibition ends on Sunday 27 November 2016 (Mon-Sat, 9am-5pm. Sun 12pm-5pm) Entry free

THERE were two elephants in the Mitchell Library’s Baillie Reading Room last week as I surveyed more than 300 original artworks of all shapes and sizes in the company of painter Alice McMurrough and her artist husband Neil Macdonald.
One of the elephants was the Baillie Reading Room’s carpet; a swirly green, black and orange affair with a Celtic knot thing going on. You really and truly don’t see carpets like this one any more on a day’s march.

The second elephant was the fact the Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Art (RGI) annual exhibition was taking place at all.

“That’s the most important thing,” McMurrough says as we near the exit after a fly-through of the 153rd Annual RGI Open Exhibition. “This show hasn’t taken place for the last two years and now it’s back.”

Looking in: RGI annual exhibition 2016 has been staged in the Mitchell Library’s Baillie Reading Room

Together with fellow RGI council members, Alice and Neil have spent endless unpaid hours helping to shape the ‘huge endeavour’ of staging the exhibition, which has been staged annually in Glasgow since 1861.

I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn when I say there was a time many people involved in the visual arts scene in Scotland wondered if the RGI’s Annual would see the light of day again.

In 2014, it was all set to happen. But with the loss of its newly-reinstated traditional home of the McLellan Galleries on Sauchiehall Street to the Glasgow School of Art following the fire in the world-famous Mackintosh Building in May that year, the exhibition was cancelled.

When the open exhibition, which invites all-comers to submit artwork, didn’t happen in 2015, the rumour-mill filled up with dark tales of artistic in-fighting.
RGI’s resident committee — or council — has since worked tirelessly to make sure that this artist-led organisation had a showcase in 2016.
Glasgow Life, the body which delivers cultural, sporting and learning activities on behalf of Glasgow City Council, stepped in with an offer to host the exhibition in the Mitchell Library’s famous main hall.

Unfortunately, this grand old space was subsequently declared out-of-action which left the RGI hunting for a suitably large space to house the ‘Annual’, as it is known.

After a goodly amount of head-scratching and negotiation by RGI president, architect David Dunbar, the Baillie’s Reading Room study space on Mitchell’s third floor was offered as an alternative.
A deep wellspring of vision was required to this room, usually filled with desks and bookcases, fit for a major art exhibition. But that is what artists and architects do so well.

“The good thing about hosting the exhibition in a building like The Mitchell,” says McMurrough, is that it is an interesting and busy building. We’ll get people looking at the work who might not normally come.”

One of the most challenging tasks involved in the ‘Annual’ is sifting through the artworks submitted. This year, some 1500 works were entered for consideration with 362 accepted.

At any given RGI open exhibition you will see a mighty gathering of some of the great and the good of the visual arts scene in Scotland, as well as a goodly few newcomers to the fold. There is also a section devoted to architecture

A detail from one of Annie Cattrell’s glass sculptures

Invited artists include; Kelpies creator, Andy Scott, David Mach, artist behind the Big Heids by the side of the M8, Fraser Taylor, GSofA graduate who co-founded ground-breaking collective, The Cloth, creators of record sleeves for bands such as Spandau Ballet and The Bluebells, and Annie Cattrell, a Glasgow born and trained glass artist who currently lectures at the Royal College of Art in London.

There are also memorial artworks by elected RGIs (a merit-based honour awarded by fellow artists), who have recently died. This includes work by; David Michie, George Devlin, Jack Knox and James Spence.

Walking around the exhibition, it’s impossible not to be struck by the sheer breadth of originality and talent on display. You won’t find film-based work or anything particularly conceptual but if you want to drink in fine art in the form of painting, sculpture or photography, then this is the place to be.

From David Mach’s interpretation of the head of Michelangelo’s David fashioned from livid yellow matchsticks, to Helen Flockhart’s delicate and disquieting oil paintings of figures in a highly detailed and patterned landscape, there’s something for all tastes to savour.

Matchstick man: A detail from David Mach’s Michelangelo inspired sculpture depicst the head of David

The city of Glasgow has been quietly inspiring many of the exhibiting artists; including Tom Allan, who has made a pared-down quite beautiful Finnieston Crane from black marble, and painter Alastair Strachan, who has been inspired by city centre Gridlock. Ron Dekker’s black and white photograph Underworld, showing bridges over the Clyde will also sound a chord of recognition.

Tom Allan’s Finnieston Crane in black marble

It’s good to see young artists, such as Corrie Thomson, finding a voice with simple wooden sculptural forms which are all about balance and equilibrium.

The RGI Annual back in business. Catch it if you can! It’s only in the building for two weeks. Most of the work is for sale and at prices which, compared to the average John Lewis print, won’t make your eyes water.

Inspired by a carpet: Shona Kinloch’s bronze dog surveys the secne
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