Exhibition review: Edinburgh College of Art Degree Show 2013

Becky Ashworth with her piece. Fork It. Picture: Jane Barlow
Becky Ashworth with her piece. Fork It. Picture: Jane Barlow
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There were worries the merger of ECA with Edinburgh University might weaken its identity but, from the work in this year’s degree show, it seems both sides are growing stronger

Edinburgh College of Art Degree Show 2013 - Edinburgh College of Art

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THE 2013 degree show at Edinburgh College of Art was the second since the merger of the college with Edinburgh University. It may be just the honeymoon effect, but to judge from the show, things seem to be going well so far. The college’s success is reflected in its applications too. It is one of the most oversubscribed institutions of higher education in the country. According to the college’s principal, Chris Breward, the ratio is 70 applications for each place. It is in a position to choose the very best. The greater visibility that comes from being part of Edinburgh University and the benefit of being associated with such a successful institution will certainly help. But that benefit is mutual too. Arts and humanities were never the strongest suit of the university. Whether or not it is cause and effect, since the college joined, they have crept up the rankings.

Certainly this year’s show is very striking. The principal feels that if this is so, perhaps it reflects the return of confidence as the college leaves behind the difficulties that almost brought it down a couple of years ago, but whose origins lay a long way further back than that. The college’s own facilities are second to none and are undoubtedly part of its attraction. So far it is not under pressure to increase its numbers. Let’s hope it stays that way. It offers a really good working environment and its superb studios, flooded with daylight, are shown to great advantage in the degree shows. The students collaborate in organising their individual shows within the working spaces, in effect curating them. The way they have used the studios is a great credit to their professionalism.

The college is still organised on traditional lines with painting and sculpture as the two largest disciplines of the four that constitute the School of Art. The other two much smaller disciplines are the oddly named intermedia – formerly tapestry – and photography. The latter was part of design, but moved to the School of Art two years ago and so now has its own show. (The college also has a School of Design, a School of Architecture, and with the new organisation within the university it is joined up with the School of Music and the School of Art History.) In the degree shows each discipline has its own area, although it is frequently hard to tell from the work itself to which of them a student belongs. The mixing of disciplines has become easier, too, as the workshops in the individual areas that were once exclusive are now open. Breward says that in spite of this convergence, there are no plans to abolish the distinctions between the traditional disciplines. They each have their own traditions and there is real value in preserving this.

Still, one or two of the best painters make what looks very like sculpture. Catherine Smith, for instance, has put together a diverse group of brightly coloured, three-dimensional objects. Part geometric, part organic, each one works on its own, but they have been brought together into a single work by the creation of a painted context on walls and floor which generates all sorts of satisfying interactions. Catriona Meeghan pursues a similar idea in a big installation of geometric shapes in bright colours painted over a black floor and a white wall, but, using mostly flat shapes, cut out and hinged, the three-dimensionality of her work seems to be an extension of the painted surfaces.

On the top floor in one of the most luminous of all the studios, Dagmara Roguska has also created an installation of simple objects and bright colours, but she has used the brilliant light to add reflected colour. Thus a black, irregular polygon set beneath the window is surrounded by a halo of intense yellow. Bright red strings stretched across add grace notes of space and colour to the composition. Robyn Benson is the other artist in this elegantly spare installation. She draws in space creating graceful curves with flexible rods. The two complement each other very well.

Charlotte Roseberry is another painter whose work makes an immediate impact. It consists mostly of abstract shapes in bright glossy colours, but its subtlety belies that description. One particularly striking painting is composed of a slightly asymmetrical arch shading from intense blue down to light blue at the bottom edge, set against a flat pink ground. A black circle overlaps the pink and blue and another little black dot floats nearby. It is a stunning piece of painting. She is not quite so successful when she introduces figurative elements like a rubber duck to this abstract world, however. Rosie Brotherwood is also an abstract painter using pure bright colours, but setting them off against subtle changes in texture.

One of the advantages of the link between the college and the university – an advantage again to both sides – is that it has opened up opportunities for collaboration across a wide range of disciplines. Emily McDougall’s beautifully drawn, but rather gruesome drawings of eviscerated animals apparently reflect access to the Department of Veterinary Medicine. In sculpture, Isobel Turley has benefited from a similar collaboration to make a loop of film, eye-contact with an Amur Leopard, one of the world’s most endangered species.

There is, of course, much that is weird and wonderful, or even just weird, to be seen here. Jodie Powell invites spectators to throw paint at her and at her perfectly white bedroom. The result, predictably is a mess. Maya Sakai paints nightmares, literally. Theo Cleary makes huge, equally nightmarish prints and pastes them to the wall. He also interprets them in life-size figures. Kate McAllan’s big pencil drawings on the other hand are rather beautiful.

In sculpture Rebecca Ashworth has created an installation of an enormous bent pink fork and green peas, a delight in its bold simplicity of both form and colour. Fiona Bundy is equally simple in her choice of materials. She only uses chairs and comes up with some ingenious results. The studio she shares with Kailah Searle-Scott, who makes elegant works with steel and other materials, is admirably spare and beautifully arranged. You really couldn’t say the same for Fraser Salter, who takes over the messy casting workshop to makes it even messier with an installation that includes a tattered airship, a beaten-up bath and other random materials. Malcolm Fraser combines drawing with a passion for sport by jumping and drawing as he jumps. Abigail McPaul’s blue painted trees are very pretty and Donata Kiaunyte’s show includes a strange metamorphic film of herself. Dennis Reinmuller pays homage to Josef Beuys in an installation, but also puts a figure upside down in a pool of blood, head buried in the floor.

There is film and video scattered throughout the shows, but they are more dominant in intermedia to the extent that it might be better renamed new media and given that focus. Sarah Wynne projects a film onto a block of sandstone asserting, she says rather oddly, “a level of monotonous ordinariness.” Billy Holmes projects a leaping horse, but it is the image that moves, not the horse.

Confined pretty much to one form of expression, photography can seem unexciting compared to the other disciplines, but there is real interest in the work of several of the students. Monika Grabowska’s photographs of the contrasts between old and new thrown up by the rapid transformation of her native Poland are arresting. So are Hanna Killoh’s pictures of amusement parks. While Billie Kate Dryden’s portraits of the owners of roadside cafés have a rather touching humanity about them.

I was sceptical about the merger of the college with the iniversity, but if the assurance to be seen in this show endures, it will be a success.

• Run ended