Art review: Glasgow School of Art Degree Shows

Firefighters tackle the Macintosh building blaze. Picture: Getty

Firefighters tackle the Macintosh building blaze. Picture: Getty

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IF THE annual art school degree shows are a pressurised time for aspiring artists around the country, then spare a thought for Alexander Jensen.

Glasgow School of Art Degree Shows

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Barely three weeks ago he was one of those Fine Art students whose life was turned upside down when The Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh building was struck by fire as they were hours away from submitting their final presentations in the historic Mackintosh building.

Jensen’s studio was not entirely lost, but his work was water damaged. In the days before his final degree result was announced, he went away for a few days to relax. He returned to Glasgow last week to find that his tenement flat in Baliol Street, in the Woodlands area of the city, had suffered a roof collapse. The building is still unsafe and he doesn’t yet know the extent of his losses. When I met Jensen, at the launch of the special exhibition of digital prints at the McLellan Galleries that this year must suffice for the fine art students, he had the clothes he was standing up in and not much more.

Each of the 102 artists has contributed a single image, which has been hung in one of two large rooms in the McLellan and printed in a special catalogue, which at £40 a copy will raise money for the artists who might normally have expected to see some of their work sold this week. Each print is also for sale and costs £500. Many have been sold and, if there’s any justice, all should be. The art school has also launched a bursary scheme that will support students who lost their work, providing time and support to enable them to rebuild their body of artwork.

This sombre affair is a far cry from the experience of visiting crammed studios and the resonant setting of the Mackintosh itself, but it is not without hope. Jensen, a Dane, whose cheery optimism and rather fancy red moustache has made him a bit of a poster boy for the exhibition, is looking forward to an autumn working as an artist assistant in Italy. What this year’s Fine Art students have had to learn in such a difficult way is that being an artist is as much about processes, abilities and determination as it is about any singe piece of work one might make.

Some students really have lost everything, such as Hannah Blackwell, whose work was in Studio 58; the historic studio once allotted to women artists, which is now charred, splintered and roofless. The single image that she is exhibiting shows the exquisitely designed studio window: on the windowsill are a screwed up ball of old masking tape and a tower of cardboard rolls. This is the detritus left over then she makes paintings, but it’s also moving evidence that is working method as much as the work itself that she will carry with her into the next stage of her career.

Under the circumstances this year, it is hard to draw conclusions about the young artists from the images available. I was much taken with a work by Jack Hancock who showed what looked like an exceptionally fine drawing but turned out to be a photo of the teetering masts and of a military installation. Clearly outstanding, even from the rushed snapshot he took last thing the night before the fire, was the work of Alex Kuusik, whose installation of a hand-printed shirt and a screen-print which combined a Hans Holbein’s woodcut and his own childhood scribbles. Kuusik’s works talked about artist’s signature, the question of originality and reproduction in the digital age. It is a question all the more pertinent when his original and finely tuned installation no longer exists.

Across at the Glue Factory, where the post-graduate MFA students present their annual show, there is plenty of evidence that these days GSA has global reach. A visit can give you access to such remote territories as the landscapes and mineral industry of Labrador and Northern Quebec and the contested politics of the Western Sahara. Jonathan Cook from the USA has made A sly print on paper using not ink but tomato soup. It shows share prices in freefall on 29 September 2008 when the economic crisis hit. One company that bucked the trend? Campbell’s.

Marysia Gacek’s clever installation, a simple mural of green fronds and leaves, has earned her the Glasgow Sculpture Studios Graduate Fellowship; it turns out to be a reproduction of the monkey house at Edinburgh Zoo. Do monkeys need art? Or is art just a useful ornament on our own everyday prisons? It’s a pertinent question about values and value.

This year the whole school has been tested, for the students in other disciplines celebrations have been cautious and respectful. The Textiles and Jewellery shows in the Reid Gallery, and the work of Product Design graduates speak to the continued strength of these departments. Tom Inns, the director of the Glasgow School of Art, is barely a year in post, but his emphasis on student welfare and community has been effective so far in his dreadful baptism of fire. We should not be mistaken: there are testing times ahead, not least the question of how the school is going to preserve community and the freedom to experiment in the face of temporary accommodation for fine art students and eventually the fears and restrictions that might be faced in a return to a restored Mackintosh building.

One of Alex Jensen’s degree show pieces was to have been a simple white-painted wall, with a tiny trout fly piercing its surface. He doesn’t know yet what happened to it, that fly was probably too small to have drawn the attention of conservators. I like to think that it might still be embedded in the body of the fire-damaged building. A fishing fly is cheap and unassuming but lethally useful and serves as a poignant little metaphor for survival. For this cohort of students it is their own sharpness, focus and effectiveness, rather than the content of their studios, that will help them achieve their aims in the future.

• Until June 21,MFA until 22 June

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