Royal Ulster Academy

After 133 years, the annual exhibit of art by members and non-members continues to astonish

If you are a tactile person averse to confrontation, it's probably best that you avoid the 2014 Royal Ulster Academy exhibition at the Ulster Museum.

Though there are signs everywhere warning visitors not to touch the art on show, it's almost impossible to comply, so textural and enticing are virtually all of the sculptural works, so lustrous and attractive the paintings.

The vast majority of these art works are so wonderfully imagined and executed, I want to pick them up and view them from all angles, lick them like sweets, hug them even – and damn the unapproving gaze of the gallery guards.

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Even pieces that reference the darker side of the human condition – like Pauline Short's knowingly titled 'Pointless Exercise', what appears to be a towering bonfire made of barbed wire – are so exquisitely renderred (in this case not in metal but stained porcelain) that one cannot help but marvel at their construction and undeniable beauty.

The RUA exhibition is very much a multidisciplinary collection, which essentially makes it accessible to all, whether you like your birds made from black duct tape (as in Pamela Byrne's mixed media 'Crow Series 3'), painted with watercolour and acrylic (see Jim Manley's rural scene 'Ballydoo: O Hanlan Departs') or taxidermied with field mice emerging from their beaks, a la Arlene McPadden's 'Gobsmacked'.

As usual, this year the exhibition has a touch of Lewis Carroll's Wonderland about it – each of the five rooms is stuffed with eye-catching, inventive, humorous, often unsettling works of art that should exist in a parallel universe, not here in dreary, rainy Northern Ireland. 

Yet here each and every piece was created, by amateur as well as professional artists, and chosen following an open submission round. Twelve works have been singled out by a panel of RUA experts as individual category winners – from the finest photograph to the work that best captures the theme of Ireland (see gallery above) – an unenviable job if ever there was one.

Such is the variety of works featured – so impressive is the craftsmenship evident in Frances Lambe's sculpture 'Terracotta Sea Bean', for example, the sureness of touch in Catherine Creaney's pencil drawing 'Observing Light', the wit in Oliver Jeffers' painting 'Ginger Hitler' – that any curator in any gallery in the world would surely dance a merry dance to exhibit them in their own venue.

Of course there are criticisms to be levelled. Whereas RUA president and painter of the stars Colin Davidson has very purposefully defied expectations by exhibiting a playful abstract work entitled 'Cloud' rather than a portrait of, say, Carl Frampton, other RUA members take up valuable wall space with works that we have all seen before, in one guise or another.

The tedium of having to refer to the free catalogue to discover which media the different art works were produced in also begins to grate, though the RUA front of house representative conversely enjoys observing visitors debating whether or not a painting is a photograph is a drawing, and concludes that dialogue, and some degree of effort on behalf of the viewer, is part and parcel of all art exhibitions worth attending.

Ultimately, however, I can put up with such minor quibbles in the knowledge that the long, uninterrupted rear wall of the third gallery space is available to view for free until January 4, 2015.

Here Davidson's curation is worthy of a prize in itself. He has somehow managed to cram over 60 works side by side, head to toe, cheek to jowl, so that it feels as if you have wandered into a Carrollian dreamscape wherein modest minimalism is an unknown concept and walls are built not to provide shelter but solely as platforms on which to hang as many pieces of art as their weight will take.

In a time of austerity and 24-hour rolling bloody awful news headlines, here Davidson seems to be saying: 'It's not all doom and gloom, you know. The soul can be replenished. Come to the Ulster Museum and gorge yourself on art. It's all for free. The Royal Ulster Academy is here to please!'

The Royal Ulster Academy exhibtion runs in the Ulster Museum, Belfast until January 4, 2015. The slideshow above contains images of all category winning entries in this year's exhibition.