Visual art reviews: Glasgow School of Art Degree Show 2011 and MFA Degree Show 2011

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Paradoxically, it seems a poor economic outlook has spurred a strong showing of innovative and strange work from students

• Alicia Matthews dances topless to Leonard Cohen

Glasgow School of Art Degree Show 2011

Glasgow School of Art

Glasgow School of Art MFA Degree Show 2011

The Glue Factory, Glasgow

THERE's no getting around it, there have been better times to graduate from art school. With the recession continuing to bite, galleries and buyers are being cautious about taking a chance on young artists. But there are two ways in which to view this kind of news. Either it's depressing, or it's freeing. If you're not likely to sell much work, why bother tailoring your work for the commercial market? Why not make exactly what you want?

That may or may not be the thinking of the class of 2011 at Glasgow School of Art, but increasing numbers of students are deciding to make performance art, or creating immersive environments which contain objects, paintings, sound and film. Many have not bothered to price works individually. Taken as a whole, this degree show is more multisensory than ever. Nearly every room has a soundscape. In the corridors, women dressed in grey crouch in doorways, clearly part of a performance, though I never did find out whose. With sacks of scented powder and a rotting fish, even the sense of smell is catered for.

Julia Scott is one of those who has embraced performance art in all its phsyicality. She has created a mural by painting on her own body and making shapes on canvas, a homage to a work by 1960s conceptual artist Yves Klein. Her degree show space is curtained and immersive – inside, viewers are invited to sit on gold cushions and flick through a book of her work while she, from time to time, will lie naked, suspended by three slings of gold fabric.

Alicia Matthews dances topless, smeared with lipstick, in her own film while Leonard Cohen's gravelly voice sings I'm Your Man. Her work has a vulnerability and directness which offers, if not a fresh take on the battle of the sexes, at least a heartfelt one. Sculptor Sinead Young places the viewer between two films of bodies breathing, focusing close-up on the chest expanding and contracting during a meditative chant. Stand in it for a while and it begins to feel as if the whole room is breathing.

Andrew Houston has filmed himself dancing. His show looks at the interplay of film, painting and performance (he, too, will be present at certain times, wearing a pair of sparkly red stilettos). Joshua Duncan appears to have built a sauna – "towel, water and shower provided", using the outflow of hot air to grow a room full of plants next door.

Romany Dear makes us all into performers by inviting viewers to take a cassette Walkman and venture out into the building prompted by her instructions. She makes us look at ourselves, as we look at the art. Beth Dynowski pledges to work every day in her space from 9am to 5pm on a task that is determined each morning.

Performance is also a theme in the work of several other artists: Sam Derounian, Claudia Nova, and painter John Kellock, whose atmosopheric works in black, red and gold seem to show strange, sad performers frozen in the act of playing their parts. Even in the paintings of Gabriella Boyd – one of this year's best painters, though the overall crop is weak – the rooms are like stage sets, the figures who populate them naked, uneasy, aware of us as viewers – or voyeurs.

A number of artists pressed home their interest in the physicality of materials: Katy Wallwork adds cocktail sausages on sticks and dripping honey to her organically shaped sculptures; Lorraine Hamilton encourages the audience to touch her cotton punchbags full of scented dust; Henrietta Skorna has reduced a broom to a pile of sawdust and bristles, melted 222 pennies into a clump of metal, and separated hundreds of cigarettes into filters and tips; Calum Johnson has done something similar with 1,000 matchsticks and cast 490 of casino chips in sugar.

Several are keen on looking unflinchingly at the origins of things: Erin Stevenson investigates the meat industry (her photographs of cows in a field licking a sausage-maker are a welcome touch of humour); Ruby Channock looks at the trapping and stuffing of animals; Euan Ogilvie has made a macabre music machine purportedly powered by mutilating dead mice (with the evidence in plain view); Richard McMaster has placed a decaying dogfish in a tank, being eaten by maggots.

A number of women are engaged in women's issues ("Is it postfeminism, now," a passing tutor mused, "or is it post-post?"). Kate Lampitt Adey has made an impressive body of work (no pun intended) by creating images of internal organs in embroidery. Eszter Biro investigates women's identity in 1930s Hungary through found photographs. Helen Gibson makes a forceful assault on the culture of women's magazines with her billboard messages ("Wear make-up, you're ugly without it") and clever slogans on false nails. Lou Prenderghast creates a portrait of her late mother, through objects, books and the sound of Robert Johnson's Delta Blues, which she juxtaposes with images from a trip to India where she met women's rights campaigner Sampat Pal.

Some of the most interesting work this year is produced by the students in Fine Art Photography, not all of them engaged in taking photographs. Ian Ray (who has changed his name from Ian Ketteridge) is concerned with place and non-place, from Glasgow's secret geometry to Ed Ruscha's documentation of Sunset Strip. Aelfred De Sisley prints the OED's 17-page definition of "light" on black paper, and fashions giant lights out of soap. Among those whose main practice is photography, Emilie Lundstrom's throwaway glimpses of butterflies on a puddle or the knees of an elephant deserve commendation, as do Hallgerdur Hallgrimsdottir's pictures of Iceland and Thomas Hatton's bleached white images of the Tunisian desert. Simone Kubik presents an evocative series of portraits of people at the moment they get out of bed.

Hannah Brackston lays the promising foundations of a socially engaged practice with her Nomadic Workshop of Travelling Tools, a craft and DIY workshop which packs away into a neat wooden trailer which can be pulled by a bicycle and hired out for events. Eva Ullrich is a bold painter, interested in the materiality of the paint. Mary Stephenson's quirky scenarios, created with handmade props, are cheerful and kitschy, while Alice Steffen-Essex's sculptures using white stilettos, car doors and gold-painted footballs address today's pop culture with a flourish.

Meanwhile, the MFA students are showing at the Glue Factory, a former industrial space off Garscube Road, first used during last year's Glasgow International. It's a building with a powerful character of its own in which works must survive on their own merits. But this is a fine, professional looking show in which there are as many approaches as there are artists. Clearly Glasgow's fabled MFA programme is encouraging diversity as much as ever.

Some respond directly to the building. Anne Patsch has created a classical landscape out of mould, so subtly placed on a mouldering wall that one has to be careful not to miss it. Sofia Silva has marked off two spaces for her work, a private space for The Orchestra, in which we enter a troubled mind which has its own language as well as images; and a more open one for the poetically titled 10227 Days of Lost Affection, which looks at the idea of photographs as therapy, and picks one image from each of the artist's 28 years.

In a room no bigger than a cupboard, a box created by Carla Novi pleads with the viewer: "Let me out… Oh, go on, lift the lid one a little bit…" When opened, it begins its story. James Hutchinson shows the works of a faker, recently unmasked in the United States, about whom he has also made a film. Camillo Paravincini is an absurdist whose work includes sculptures, paintings and a coin-operated slideshow. Shelton Walker has made a pictorial proposal for the removal of GSA's extensive archive to be stored in shipping containers on the West Coast.

Tori Drost's Dogwood Park, an immensely detailed scale model of a derelict house made from Plasticine, looks at home in the Glue Factory, as do Elizabeth McDonald's paintings. Aint no sunshine when the freezer's low, showing a woman in a dirty kitchen, holding a squirrel and smiling bravely, has an edgy sadness which fits with the peeling walls. McDonald, who won the Young Artist Award in the BP Portrait Prize, is a fine painter, developing all the time, and one to watch. Even in a risk-averse market, a combination of talent and perseverance is likely to win through in the end.

• Both shows until 18 June

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