Full spectrum on offer at RUA

Dawning by Francis O'Toole
Dawning by Francis O'Toole

VISUAL ARTS REVIEW: RUA Exhibition @ Ulster Museum

THIS year’s Royal Ulster Academy exhibition is a particularly strong collection with everything from flawlessly executed realism in oil on canvas to bronze busts, installation pieces, impressionistic paintings reminiscent of Monet, conceptual work, compelling photographs, abstract pieces splurging reds and pinks and unusual shapes in freeform brushwork, humourous sketches, collage and absolutely magnificent portraiture from Francis O’Toole and Colin Davidson.

O’Toole’s work was a particular highlight. Ambrosio (The Monk) is a triumph of Caravaggio-like chiaroscuro, the balance of light and dark perfectly achieved, the detail of the wrinkled face precise, immaculate, the very pores almost visible as it emerges from the darkness of the hood; the figure here is at once haunting and intimately present. Dawning, O’Toole’s painting of a woman lying on a bed, sheets twisted modestly around her translucent, alabaster-pale skin, face turned away from the viewer, is another masterpiece of technique and one which notably subverts the classical female nude in its capturing of reticence and occlusion; we are not offered the proudly posed nakedness of a Modigliani or, for example, the exposed glory of Titan’s Venus of Urbino or Goya’s sensual Maja.

There is a poignancy and serenity to this painting that, to me, makes it captivating.

Elsewhere in the extensive collection Mark Shield’s Rising II was a charming nod to cubism - like a figure from Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon but more melancholic- and Colin Davidson’s rendering of Mark Knopfler was executed in his now famously distinctive style, his eye for accuracy of depiction meeting with a move towards expressionistic impasto - the equilibrium between order and a kind of anarchic liberation of brushwork in the palette of the complexion held just-so; painters are tightrope walkers too. The smudging around the profile here suggests movement in stasis, a kinesis held within the frame. Davidson, whose paintings of Adrian Dunbar, Conleth Hill, Brian Friel, Marie Jones and Barry Douglas adorn the corridors of the Lyric Theatre, is now president of the RUA and his work continues to inspire here alongside contributions from long-standing academicians Paul Seawright, Neil Shawcross and the ever wonderfully surreal Jack Pakenham, whose work continues to enigmatically employ symbolism, his paintings seemingly loaded with encoded messages and narratives amid the primary colours.

Here too there are faultless sculptures from John Sherlock and a bamboozling piece by Brendan O’Neill - a blur of lemony yellow that brings into focus and frustrates our relentless desire to decode, decipher and understand written text. Natalia Black’s colourful abstract Giant’s Causeway will leave lovers of realism flummoxed and academician Simon McWilliams’ Belfast Palmhouse and Glasshouse Vegetation were, to me, paeans to impressionism’s fascination with flowers, leaves, sunlight; both were utterly beautiful and uplifting. McWilliam’s That Sinking Feeling in July also stood out for me as wry social critique that packed a political subtext on parades, intransigence and cultural terrorism.

This exhibition joyously affirms that the visual arts in Northern Ireland are in rude, vibrant health.

:: The Royal Ulster Academy of Arts exhibition runs at the Ulster Museum, Belfast, until November 17. Entrance is free.