At last, an independent republic of ideas

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DEGREE SHOW 2007 ****


DEGREE SHOW 2007 ****


IT WAS on 11 July, 1907, that the Prince of Wales, later George V, laid the foundation stone of Edinburgh College of Art. So this year's degree show marks its centenary. Glasgow School of Art's show is running at the same time. Glasgow can look cool, of course. It had been up and running for some time by 1907, but Edinburgh's story also goes back much further than that. The new art college brought together under one roof and into a single organisation several distinct institutions. The oldest of them was the Trustees Academy which had first opened its doors in 1761. It even predates the Royal Academy Schools in England which did not begin until seven years later.

Over its long history the Trustees Academy had trained some very distinguished artists. It and the other schools were housed in what is now the RSA. Up until then the RSA had shared what is now the National Gallery building, but the National Gallery needed more space. The RSA was therefore given the other building and so the old schools could no longer be housed there.

A new art college was needed, and it was built on the site of the Edinburgh Cattle Market. The butchers were not very pleased, but their objections were soon forgotten and since then the college has gone from strength to strength.

Then, as now, and whatever the history, what matters is that our art schools are places where the students' imaginations are allowed to flourish. They can very easily develop their own conformities, however. In recent years a particular kind of conceptual art has been the reigning orthodoxy, but perhaps that is no longer so. Certainly the variety of what is on view in both schools is refreshing. So too is the amount of it that has actually been made, some of it even drawn or painted too. Not that I am against conceptual art, only that it can so easily mean that artists, fascinated by themselves, expect the world to share their fascination. It means art school is just an extension of potty training: "Look what I've done, Mummy!" The appreciation of that infant moment of creativity, "Yes, dear. Aren't you clever!" is exclusive to the parent. The rest of the world will not share it.

To be meaningful, an art work needs to have a more independent existence, it is not to be valued simply because the artist has made it. And it is encouraging to find so much in these shows which has that necessary independence.

Take Edinburgh first, in deference to its centenary. Maki Hamada is a student from Japan - both schools are international - who makes big, highly decorative paintings, built up from complex drawing into overall patterns within which figures are romantically concealed.

Daniel Irwin paints liquid, suggestive figures reminiscent of the erotic in popular culture and talks unfashionably about the "sensual, tactile qualities of paint". Rachael Bibby is also a remarkable painter. Her figures and faces rendered in rich, runny paint are really striking. I liked Kristian Evju's much more formal paintings, too. And Ian Bruce has painted lively and sympathetic portraits of people in a care home.

It is not all paint, however. For sheer overflowing abundance, Anneli Holmstrom's assemblage should get a prize. It is an extraordinary composition which combines found objects of all kinds. It is held together by her strong sense of composition.

Mhari Baxter is another student who has allowed her imagination to run away with her in the most delightful way. She has created a huge, complicated and half animated, three-dimensional structure out of circular sections of cardboard tube. The circles look like the scales on some kind of virtual dinosaur as It rambles across the floor and up the high windows of the studio. She was one of several students to benefit from a period in Iceland. Two of the others, Melissa Macrobert and Valerie Dempsey, have produced work, some of it collaborative, that reflects more directly the unique Icelandic landscape. Macrobert's film of thermal activity in a hot spring is particularly beautiful. Two other girls, Charlotte Jarvis and Clemency Cook, have also made a very effective team. Their Mantilla Foundation offers "a bespoke cremation service for the disposal of unwanted, unloved and emotionally crippling art". It has already achieved international attention.

Individually their work is very lively too. I especially liked Cook's landscapes that she makes by placing little models of cows, trees and the like on the hills and valleys of a real human figure.

The Mantilla Foundation might have made common cause with Lucy Letcher, who has made up a show of art works that have been "informally" acquired, if not actually nicked, or indeed with sculpture student Jenny Langhorn, who has created a little room that is the fictional Department of Lost Acquisitions. Heather Veneziano has also made an interior, a derelict room lit by a single bulb and, with magnificent extravagance, she has decorated it with hand-printed wallpaper, made, hung and then carefully ripped off again to create the right ruined effect. In the Sculpture Court, Jessica Harrison has made a full-scale statue of what looks very like the Risen Christ out of glass eyes. That kind of bizarre conjunction may be common enough in contemporary art, but it is not always carried out with such energy. The same goes for Fiona Pender who has created the most extraordinary body sculpture, that doubles as jewellery, and models it.

However, a garter made of bronze butterflies, even if it is becoming, does look very uncomfortable.

In Glasgow too, there are some vivid and original talents. Sam Kenyon is a serious painter. A cloudy, grey composition, lit up with spots of brilliant blue is reminiscent of Mir. Laura Dover paints lions and tigers against a background of scribbled writing. The result is vigorous and decorative. Kevin Paterson makes beautiful, low key abstract compositions from simple black and white collage. Kalliopi Andreadi makes equally abstract images, but from old pairs of tights.

Heather Clelland has incorporated her own blonde hair into a wonderfully diverse series of small framed images like Victorian keepsakes. Vivien Harland pays homage to Beuys with a pile of salt and what looked like her unfinished lunch. Pio Abad has made an extraordinary interior. It is in red, black and white and in a kind of Aubrey Beardsley rococo, but, as she comes from the Philippines, it is all a telling comment on the Ancien Rgime character of the Marcos period. Holly McCulloch seems to have made a strange parallel world which includes real people, out of the basic, abstract language of form as it was proposed by some of the Bauhaus artists. Alex Dordoy is a really committed painter. One of his compositions is like an abstract, painterly version of Brueghel's Tower of Babel.

Jack Frame is another. Indeed, he is outstanding, with big, strong and really well-resolved paintings of cliffs and tangled trees. Philip Gurrey is another very strong painter. He has done a series of heads that suggest he has been looking thoughtfully at both Francis Bacon and Velazquez.

Claire McGee is another painter who seems to find inspiration in a fantastical version of the 18th century, like James Pryde out of Piranesi. Elizabeth West and Christopher Gaston have both taken inspiration from William Kentridge's recent exhibition at GSA to make their own animated art. It is rare to find an artist who can combine strength as a painter with convincing performance art, but Florencia Guerberof manages it brilliantly. She paints herself, uncompromisingly naked, and then makes films of herself performing that are even more stark and compelling.


For information on Edinburgh College of Art's centenary programme, visit its website at

• Glasgow School of Art degree show continues until tomorrow. Edinburgh College of Art degree show until 26 June