Degree Show 2022, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, Dundee ****
I’m delighted to report that live degree shows are back. For the past two years, everyone has done their best online, but it can’t compare with being able to wander through the studios at Duncan of Jordanstone – the traditional starting point for Scotland’s degree show season – breathing in the smell of paint and wondering what surprises might await you round the next corner.
The students graduating this summer were just over halfway through their second year when Covid-19 hit, bringing serious disruption to studio and workshop access, and to the normal learning experience they signed up for. As a result, a number have deferred for a year, meaning this is a smaller-than-usual cohort: 66 students in Fine Art, though still over 300 in the college as a whole.
How the pandemic has impacted on the work presented here is a more complex question. A degree show is always going to include work at different stages of completion. This year, the contrast between the two seems more pronounced: some shows are big, raw splurges of material, others almost obsessively subtle and delicate. Also, while a certain fascination with death and the macabre is de rigueur at degree shows, this year there is more than usual.
Perhaps one can’t attribute these things to the pandemic. The students don’t. Covid barely gets a mention, despite the fact that much of this work must have been conceived or made during one lockdown or another. Ronnie Wood, who subverts the graphic novel form with a searing account of his last few years, seems to speak for more than just himself when he says of Covid-19: “That’s been done to death already and at this point, if someone brings up how annoying or horrible this pandemic has been, I hope you get it.”
It would be easy to see the current zeitgeist for ceramics as coming from a desire to return to hands-on processes after too much virtual experience, but ceramics have been enjoying a resurgence in art schools for several years. Still, it’s hard to look at work such as Charlotte Maishman’s impressive installation in the Cooper’s Lower Gallery and not see the shadow of the pandemic.
Central to the work is a model of a house made from extruded porcelain fixed together with steel bolts. Porcelain, she says, personifies humanity, brittle yet strong. The house, suspended within a steel cube, is the weight of an average human body. Around this are placed photographic prints, screenprints and a film.
Rachel Simpson started working with ceramics because she was drawn to explore the boundaries between earth and body, life and death. Her pots are superb, some misshapen and raw, others more highly refined, presented along with lithographs on paper and fabric.
Eilidh Guthrie’s sculptures made from clay, bronze and wood seem to take this exploration a stage further. They are organic forms, flesh or vegetation, taken from the life cycle of a forest where the mulch of decaying matter feeds the next burst of new life. Katie Nelis focuses on the process of making a ceramic sculpture in an earth pit as a symbolic act of healing from trauma. Lily Bircham’s pots are about hospitality, the everyday ceremony of sharing a communal meal, and perhaps we needed lockdown to remind us how special that is.
Identity is always a big theme at degree shows, and the trick is to find a way of telling your own story which engages others. Alec Angus’s well-made film Bystander touches cleverly on themes of mental health. Ronnie Wood’s graphic novel, presented on what looks like a recreation of his own desk, is sharply observed, frequently challenging the reader directly about their own expectations. Tilda Watson explores dreams and memory in a visually striking lexicon of black and white images which she turns into an impressive mobile.
Michael Cordiner invites us to look at the world as he does, experiencing a particular type of dyslexia which means he reads upside down. Marly Baker invites members of the audience to try on (literally) another version of the self, in the form of a wearable sculpture, and Instagram the result.
Some artists explore their background. Stacey Hilton celebrates her traveller heritage with a recreation of a camp, photographs and reminiscences. Chantal Simic’s work draws on the fact that she was born the day after the war in the former Yugoslavia officially ended, but grew up in its shadow. Annamarie Valavaara’s three-screen film Meritorppa is superb, exploring not just a place which haunts her, but something of how memories and places haunt all of us.
Strong painters are less in evidence than sometimes at Duncan of Jordanstone, but it’s worth seeking out Patrick Mitchell’s small, painterly portraits and still lifes, Gail Bankier’s works, inspired by the fashions and films of the 1960s, and the delicate, skilled paintings of Iran-born Maryam Hemati, whose particular take on the Scottish landscape works on both very large and very small scales.
Other artists who take a concept and run with it: Claire (CL) Gamble creates what looks like a jewellery brand, Cyclica, made with rocks she found on beaches in lockdown. Its “2027 Summer Collection” comes along with an imagined political context told through the lens of a lifestyle magazine (Dundee is a beacon of rebellion in an ultra-Tory “United Albion”). Euan Rutter, making a rare direct reference to the pandemic, has created a giant chess-like game, “Pandemia”, in which the pieces are represented by models of real-life statues, buildings and characters from contemporary life.
Finlay Horne and Calum Rennie both take on the subject of work. Rennie’s The Work Never Stops is inspired by long hours working in a supermarket. Day and night, a printer (like that on a supermarket checkout) churns out a constant stream of thoughts and observations. Guendalina Rota’s meditative space, a reminder to stop, breathe, be in the moment, is timely and beautiful.
And there is plenty more: Zach Moody’s intriguing sculptures, Jamie Ewen’s macabre pencil drawings, Maella Wallace’s hand-made rugs (a slow project for lockdown if ever there was one), delicate bodies of work by Isla Davie and Dawn Killean looking at isolation and absence. Enjoy all this and more. But, most of all, enjoy the chance to see, in the flesh, the work of Scotland’s next generation of artists triumphing over a difficult two years to emerge and take their places in the world.
Until 29 May. See the show online at https://www.dundee.ac.uk/graduate-showcase/2022