Exhibiton review: Glasgow School of Art Degree Show

Marie-Claire Redman's Haarlem, Summer of '69. Picture: complimentary
Marie-Claire Redman's Haarlem, Summer of '69. Picture: complimentary
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Glasgow graduates know the way to pep up a show: bring in an ungulate

Glasgow School of Art Degree Show - Glasgow School of Art

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Glasgow School of Art MFA Degree Show - The Glue Factory, Glasgow

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A camel is surely a welcome addition to any degree show. Even if, as in this case, it isn’t present in person, it’s there on film, walking down the basement corridor of the Mackintosh Building, rubbing its nose on the statuary. And there were real goats on opening night. The message is simple: when an exhibition needs a little light relief, bring on the livestock.

The camel came to Glasgow School of Art (GSA) courtesy of painting and printmaking undergraduate Rosie O’Grady, referencing a time in the early 1900s when animals (including a camel) were brought into the school for life-drawing. The other part of her show gently pokes fun at the way Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s legacy is used so liberally and associatively in Glasgow.

This carefully pitched humour was a welcome seasoning in a serious-minded degree show. Two thefts of students’ work has made for a guarded atmosphere, with many choosing to tie down objects and books. What kind of bad sport steals from a degree show?

GSA is known for encouraging students to think outside the box in terms of traditions, and while this is still in evidence, there are also signs of increasing numbers of students working within traditional media, and doing so very well.

There is good figurative painting from Catherine Carlisle and Tilly Armstrong. Nicola Henry paints well observed portraits of the larger-than-life characters from Come Dine With Me, and titles each with one of their more ridiculous quotations. Ann Sutton and Amy Hutson are both using a variety of printmaking techniques to achieve interesting results. Ross Finnie and Marion Archibald are fine, evocative photographers.

Catherine Cameron is still making her own large-format black-and-white prints in the darkroom – a process which creates a resonance that digital prints often seem to lack. Grace Johnston has created a mature and substantial body of sculptural work using tiny, delicate objects attached to metal stands. Gordon McKerrow has made a sensitive documentary film about two musicians.

One recurring theme in the show is a serious engagement with figures from the history of art. Rachel Jones’ paintings offer a confident, quirky take on Picasso which seems in keeping with the spirit of the man’s own work. Marie-Claire Redman looks through contemporary eyes at the veneration of ordinary people in early Dutch painting. Her boozy businessmen with pints and lobsters manage to be both comic and sinister. Cameron Macrostie is interested in Vorticism, Culloden Robertson in the decorative portraits of Boucher and Fragonard.

Yvonne Gogan has spent a lot of time looking at the religious art of the baroque era. Taking on the Old Masters at their height might be a daring thing for a student to square up to, but the quality of her painting suggests just how much can be gained from spending time with the best. Christopher Milligan has created a sculpture based on Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, with an interactive button on God’s outstretched finger.

Last year’s performance art thread continues. Justyna Ataman and Alexandra Roch have worked together on a series of performance pieces, wearing matching costumes and testing the patience of retail staff in various Glasgow stores.

Two students are running cafés as part of their shows. Carrie Gooch is offering “coffee and conversation” for a moderate price, with a “menu” of scripted conversations to choose from. Christopher Silver’s Austerity Café looks less appetising, with its porridge-coated walls and dirty dishes stacked in the sink, but it makes its point well. George Osborne gets a credit as co-creator, and a portrait on the wall dressed as Marie Antoinette, a costume which Silver himself dons every afternoon.

Nathalie Holbrook has created a beautiful body of work relating to trees. Her delicate sculptural swirl of twigs wrapped in paper is a delight. She also loves text, which is a feature in several shows this year. Sandrine Timmemans likes to experiment with taking text out of context, cutting and pasting words from newspaper death notices to create new life-affirming stories.

Qi Qi Loh works in wood to explore orientalism and the veneration of craftsmanship. Oliver Prentice-Middleton’s film interventions do a great deal with a comparatively small space, and Mikey Cook has created a parallel fictional version of the town of Castleford in Yorkshire, with its own myth, Julie Mythos.

The MFA students are once again at the Glue Factory, occupying its chilly, half-derelict spaces with an intriguing range of work. The course is international and ecletic, and the success of its alumni (three of whom are currently representing Scotland at the Venice Biennale) means it automatically attracts a certain level of attention.

The work is presented without any background or supporting information, which can lead to the sense that one is lost in the darker waters of conceptualism without a map. We see only the end point of two years of work, without any sense of the journey that has taken the artist there. The work which is most striking, then, is the work for which little background is necessary.

The show has a certain self-awareness when it comes to the workings of the art world, and Glasgow’s place in it. Saejin Choi has made a body of work relating to art and the market: a donation box which spins your coin and spits it back out again, and a film of an auction of a Picasso painting, with the voiceover in reverse, so it begins with $95 million and ends with a derisory amount. Keeley Marie Stitt has created the Higher Education Corporation Arts Division, with branded material and corporate videos. Cedric Tai’s floor piece Performing the Glasgow miracle is laced with irony.

Seth Orion Schwaiger has created a small but powerful sculpture of a cornucopia filled with crude oil, installed under a spotlight in a room which is almost dark. His starburst mirror made with recycled wood hides a camera that beams your face into the next room. Gabriel Leung has created interesting work about the earthquake in Fukushima. Jay Mosher’s slow-motion film of a metal gauge block falling is mesmerising, a surprising study of motion and material.

These are confident, self-aware works which don’t feel the need to chase after showmanship. However, as is always with the case with degree shows, what happens from here on in is anybody’s guess.

• Degree Show until 15 June; MFA Show until 16 June.