Gray’s School of Art degree show review

Didi Jellema with one of her entries in the Gray's School of Art degree show. Picture: Contributed
Didi Jellema with one of her entries in the Gray's School of Art degree show. Picture: Contributed
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ARTISTS don’t simply make art any more. Like dentists, they practice.

It’s a piece of cant nonsense, but it is pervasive nonetheless, and so now at Gray’s School of Art, while there is still a department of painting, there is no longer a department of sculpture. In its place is something called Contemporary Art Practice. Painting, it seems, is not contemporary. I hope that is not what is meant, but I suppose it is what the students want to hear.

In actual practice, however, it doesn’t seem to make a lot of difference. The art in the degree show at Gray’s is pretty well mixed up and you can’t tell at a glance who belongs to which department. It is a good show nevertheless with some bold work, a lot of it, too, in the not-contemporary form of paint on canvas.

Emily Hill, for instance, is a really striking painter with bold, strongly painted pictures of things like a bank of lupins growing above a wall, or a bathtub with lilies growing in it. They are ordinary enough subjects, but the way she paints them is disquieting. It seems to hover between ferocity and control and she attributes this quality to the inspiration of the graffiti left over from the Troubles in her native Northern Ireland.

Similar themes of identity surface in the work of others, too. Neda Ghaffar examines her Muslim heritage in abstract paintings that do indeed manage to have an Islamic feel to them, but without being too obvious.

Didi Jellema paints moody, abstract landscapes inspired by Anselm Kiefe and decorated with words in Dutch and German drifting across them, apparently reflecting on her own experience of diaspora. Gender is another preoccupation. In texts typed on silk with an old-fashioned typewriter, Jessica-Lucky Airlie records different accounts – and usually the accompanying embarrassment – of the arrival of first periods.

Ashleigh Christie is blunt in her preoccupations, she has a display of what I can only describe as knitted vaginas combining the ancient association of women with weaving and knitting with an unambiguously female image. Rebecca Fry uses dried oranges cut open to what seems to be a similar end, no pun intended, saying explicitly she ‘accesses gender’ through the obvious appearance. While Sean Wilson, in a series enigmatic objects in outrageously fluffy pink, claims to explore the gay world.

More macabre is the preoccupation of both Susan Brand and Tina Mair, not with desiccated oranges, but with the dried out corpses of small animals. Susan Brand finds her dead animals in nature, but Tina Mair’s are the stuffed subjects of the taxidermist’s art, unstuffed. The effect in the art of both is sinister.

Craig Lee’s work is straightforward painting, but it is impressive. His pictures are big, bold and abstract. Executed with big sweeps of the brush, they are shaped by the essential business of painting, but also, in the textures he achieves, by the physical nature of paint.

If his pictures are pure painting, Nicola Mayers’s tall, slender stalactites and stalagmites of dangling, tangled fabric turned solid with plaster or resin are pure sculpture and as such are memorable. David Mitchell with a studio full of dozens of massed classical figures makes sculpture as it was understood two centuries ago, but with great energy and conviction.

There are more traditionally minded painters too. Nabila Attar, for instance, makes rather spooky narrative paintings with figures and strange goings on in dream landscapes. Amy Dobbie does something a little similar, but her paintings, though interesting are outclassed by a truly ghoulish head on a spike that she has made. It’s composed of paint on a wire frame, but looks as though it had just risen from quite a long sojourn in the grave.

Destruction, not corruption, is Rebecca Murray’s theme. She combines paint and model cars to create a really effective image of the impact of forest fires that she witnessed in America. While Hannah Murray, apparently no relation, uses good luck charms and other odd materials to create some very striking images. Her best works are really simple. One particularly good example is just a disembodied dress against a field of letters and numbers, but with Christmas decorations incorporated into the surface of the paint. It works because she really is sensitive to surfaces and how, controlled, they can build a memorable image.

Steven Tupper also makes memorable images, but they are pretty weird too. His chosen subject matter is, he says, ‘legal highs’. It is not clear whether he means that these are observed or directly experienced, but the results are pretty fierce, especially when he cuts straight into the surface of a table to create a nightmarish image in a one-off woodcut.

Gianpero Franchi’s shock tactics are more direct. He has designed and built a compressor. The drawings are all there to prove it, and when you press a button it goes off with a terrific bang, blasting a football to bounce off the ceiling. Simple, but effective. There is much more too of course, but I reckon there are several graduates from this year at Gray’s whose careers will be worth watching.