I feel I should leave soon, lest I fall victim to a sugar rush and begin to knock things over in my excitement. The 2012 Royal Ulster Academy exhibition is a veritable candy factory of visual delights, and I find myself gorging on them, circling back around galleries six and seven in the Ulster Museum for more, like some sort of ravenous orphan boy let loose in the marshmallow room.
Between an incredible collection of photographs – all nipples and dead rats – and a plinth housing two classical style bronze busts by John Sherlock, I try to recall how I felt on Christmas Eve as a youngster, and reckon that this is as close as I'll get to that feeling as a cynical old adult. The best art can have transformative, restorative qualities; the best artists are alchemists.
This is certainly the most evenly-balanced and impressive RUA exhibition I have had the pleasure of viewing.
At previous outings my attention was invariably grabbed by individual pieces – a wooden sculpture here, an intriguing grouping of paintings there. I was continually drawn to them, wilfully ignoring the rest of the works on display, and ultimately slightly disappointed with the whole a result.
But the 131st collection is a smorgasbord of eye-catching works with surprises here, there and everywhere. I am happy to report too that, for me at least, the paintings play second fiddle this year to the photographs, sculptural work and various installations included, many of which are downright hilarious.
Take Redmond Herrity's 'Freshly Squeezed', for example – a flawless marble sculpture of a generic juice carton which demands to be viewed from every concievable angle – or Lauran Scott's 'Forget Me Not', an over-sized rat made up of textiles and ceramics, who seems to have been jilted at the alter. Replete with lace veil and bouquet of flowers dropped and forgotten at her feet, she wrings her tail as if to say, 'Oh dear, he's left me!'
Jonathon Aiken's 'Indelible', meanwhile, replaces the romanticism surrounding the Titanic story with a dose of realism – in the installation pictured above he seems to saying 'Yes, that's all very well, but it sank!' – whilst Rita Duffy's wonderfully thought-out installation 'Thaw Factory Produce' pokes fun at Irish political history via the medium of – you guessed it – branded groceries.
So you can buy individual jars of Padraig Pearse Pasta Sauce, Ulster Vinegar – 'enjoyable to the bitter end' – and Edward Carson Covenanters Marmalade, as well as tins of Red Ham of Ulster, Peas Process and (King) Billy's Baby Carrots – 'succulently sectarian, tenderly triumphalist' – or you can purchase the branding itself, signed by the artist.
Some might say it's juvenile, but try telling that to the groups of gallery-goers jostling for position around the installation, struggling to read the small print, laughing with strangers, or the RUA volunteer who tells me that 'this is the piece that most people leave talking about', though it wasn't selected as a winning entry in any of the four categories that it was eligble for.
The works are not presented in chronological order, obviously, and it can be troublesome having to flick through the £10 brochure to see who created what. But I don't mind putting in a little effort to get to the sugary bit in the middle. There are academicians, associate academicians, honorary academicians, invited artists, invited graduates and selected artists featured, and the interactive aspect of attempting to guess who did what gives the RUA exhibition an added layer of intrigue.
Bar Francis O'Toole's 'Ambrosio (the Monk)', which scooped the IrishArtCollector.com Prize for an outstanding painting by an artist under 35 – as a fan of Caravaggio, this painting (pictured above), with its dark shadows and bursts of light, has me drooling – none of the other prize winners really take my breath away.
In fact I'm a little disappointed that Neil Shawcross's 'Portrait of Barney McCool' was awarded the Conor Prize for a figurative work in any media, mainly because Shawcross in no way needs the accolade and the relative exposure and kudos it brings. There are any number of original, fresh, vibrant emerging artists here who deserve such an award.
There are examples of vituosity also, such as Carmel Fenlon's charcoal portrait of 'Brian Cody' and Col McGookin's colourful, symbolic paintings after Chagall, but the piece that most entrances me is Emma-Jane McAleese's 'Long Runs the Fox'. It is a landscape photograph of a dead rat, lying on its back in a greasy back alley, its little arms extended as if reaching out to the viewer.
Perhaps the rat was stricken with some illness and died out in the open, I think, too weak to crawl out of view. Maybe it was bitten by a cat, or hit by a vehicle. There is no blood. However it met its end, for some reason the dirty little thing gets me thinking about the recession, of city traders and their filthy, underhand ways. Maybe the rat ate too much – maybe the greedy beast chocked to death.
Although all of the artists featured in the RUA exhibition are from or are based in Ulster, it still comes as a surprise that so many of the works feature Northern Irish scenes, or are inspired by Northern Irish culture.
There are Orange men marching past the Frames snooker complex in Belfast, Newcastle promenade and the Mourne Mountains, music festival kingpin Paddy Glasgow in his leather jacket, tractors lying empty in sodden farmyards, the Linen Hall Library in windscreen...
All of these images are reminders that here, in this tiny little country of ours, we have much to be thankful for – not least the incredible array of world-class artists who created them.
These artists are some the very best that Northern Ireland has to offer, and the RUA platform is essential to their development not only as creatives, but also as business people. A throughly enjoyable experience. Long may it continue.
The 131st Royal Ulster Academy exhibition continues in the Ulster Museum until Sunday, November 18. The Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's continues until November 4.