2011 Royal Ulster Academy Exhibition

So good it makes you proud to be Northern Irish. Listen to prize winners discussing their works

With the leaves falling crisp outside, the winter gear on and a steaming bowl of lentil soup down the hatch to warm the cockles, it’s off to the Ulster Museum for the annual autumnal art fest that is the Royal Ulster Academy Exhibition.

Somehow, it feels like going to visit an eccentric old aunt, someone who, on the face of it, appears conventional, but who likes nothing more than to shock her unsuspecting audience with the most outrageous stories by the fireside, all told with a wicked grin and a hearty chuckle.

The RUA has existed, in one guise or another, since 1879, initially formed as the Rambler’s Sketching Club, later changed to the Belfast Art Society. It is an august institution indeed, boasting well-known artists such as Neil Shawcross, Rita Duffy and Jack Pakenham as members, and others who have been involved for decades. But the RUA could never be accused of slowing down, or losing its edge.

With its annual exhibition, it provides its members with a very visible platform on which to showcase new work, but it also invites other artists to contribute and welcomes submissions from unknown amateurs from across the country.

As such, the RUA receives many weird, wacky and wonderful entries throughout the year. This year’s exhibition features stunning examples of portraiture, sculpture, ceramics, print work, photography, even a woodwork installation that is so texturally attractive it positively encourages you to defy the written warning and TOUCH IT!

Some of the artists are present at the official opening, prize-winners like Pauline Short, Colin Davidson and Shane Blunt (listen to their commentaries on their winning entries in the videos above and below). RUA members peruse the works and look on with gratification as press photographers position the winners in the best light.

After an hour admiring the works on show, it’s impossible not to feel immensely proud to be Northern Irish. This is a collection of artworks that, as per usual with the RUA, warms the heart, and never fails to surprise.

At one point I almost back into what appears to be a baby tree installed beside a temporary wall, which, on closer inspection, reveals itself to be an impossibly intricate sculpture made up of many naked bodies intertwining and reaching for the sky, all bums and biceps. The Chapmans would be proud to call it their own, but then they would never consent to one of their works being anywhere near as uplifting.

Elsewhere, a map of Ireland made up of different coloured toy soldiers (separating the six counties from the rest) is also reminiscent of the Chapmans, whilst a weirdly Dali-esque tea set recalls Wonderland – as if the artist had been drinking tea brewed with mushrooms at the time of creation.

The quality of the portraits remains high (something the RUA council prides itself on, one would assume), and various other painters have found inspiration in the Northern Irish landscape, whether urban or rural, painting scaffolding on one hand, white-washed cottages on the other.

My one criticism of the exhibition, and of the jury's prize selection, relates to the winner of the Irish News Prize for a work depicting the theme of Ireland today. It is a photograph of a Catholic priest donning his robe before mass. No doubt it is an eye-catching photograph, but, for me at least, it speaks of old Ireland. In our increasingly secular society, choosing the church as a subject is hardly an original, or even a controversial, idea.

There is a varied selection of prizes at this year’s RUA exhibition, from the Original Vision prize to the best work by an RUA member, but you will be hard pressed to guess which are the winners and which aren’t, the level of quality is so consistent. There is surely nothing better for art lovers to do this coming weekend, or sometime during the next month, perhaps anywhere in the whole of the UK or Ireland.

Whether a first-year art student looking for inspiration or an eccentric old aunt organising a day out, the RUA exhibition really has something for everyone.

The Royal Ulster Academy Exhibition is at the Ulster Museum until November 20.