Degree Show 2022, Gray’s School of Art, Aberdeen ****
Emergent, Look Again Project Space, Aberdeen ****
The students graduating from Scotland’s art schools this summer were halfway through their second year when the pandemic hit. They endured almost two years of little or no access to studios and equipment, finally returning to college full-time at the beginning of this year, just months before their degree shows.
The graduate exhibitions this year are shaped by this experience in different ways. Some students have responded to the restrictions to making the biggest, most ambitious work they can. Some include too much work, or too little, or don’t fully resolve what they’re doing (and who can blame them?) But the best work has a quality of thought, maturity and sophistication of presentation which is unusual at this stage.
Gray’s School of Art, the smallest of the four big Scottish art schools and the last to unveil its graduate work, has a remarkably high number of students in this last category in its Degree Show. The Fine Art students (now in just two departments, Painting and Contemporary Art Practice) reach a consistently high standard in the way they create and present their work. However difficult the last two years have been, they have emerged from it determined to do their absolute best.
There is some very strong painting. Emma Hall describes herself as “a botanical painter… of sorts”. But her works are not botanic art as we know it. They look at plants through a contemporary lens, bringing in influences from the virtual world of games, and asking big questions about how plants shape the world and how humans shape plants. They are also beautifully painted.
Caroline Hendry works between painting and drawing, creating pictures in ink and wash which explore a nostalgia for the early days of the internet. Particularly impressive is the large doll’s house picture packed full of cutesy collectibles and old desktop computer monitors.
Lachlan Wilson considers himself an outsider in the rural world, and explores that sense of alienation in his strong tonal paintings which look at the strangeness of regular patterns, such as geometrical rows of hay bales in a field. Duncan Fisken’s fine figurative work celebrates queer intimacy and the beauty in the everyday, while Tama Marie Gray is interested in the fleeting things which connect us to memories. Her paintings feel like those things: small, delicate, but redolent with meaning.
The natural world has been an important theme in all the degree shows this year. Emma Caldow says she “works between painting, environmentalism and material sciences” gathering matter on Scottish beaches to produce organic and inorganic pigments. These are then embedded in discs made of seaweed-based bioplastic and arranged to make a spectrum of colours on the wall of an otherwise white space.
Katie Taylor’s exploration of nature feels more instinctive. Her film of a dance sequence choreographed outdoors is superbly put together. Jenny Ross paints very well with natural pigments, and makes objects too: antlers of glass and a bowl made from seed pods. Allana Paterson makes exquisitely detailed vessels from unfired clay which will crack apart in time as part of their own natural process.
Relationships with others has been another key subject this year. Jacqueline Willis celebrates her classmates with a series of portraits set in resin, lively faces frozen in time, and includes blank pages for those who dropped out along the way.
Ellie Bray Swanston celebrates her relationship with her grandparents, making assemblages of objects found when emptying their house and a wonderful coracle-like boat covered in a patchwork of fabrics from her grandmother’s sewing box. It’s heartfelt work, made with tenderness and precision.
Those words might also be used of Denise Delaunay-Wood, a photographer, who makes work about ageing and family, always taking time to find the fresh angle, the unexpected view. Indre Sakute has made a tender sculpture exploring her relationship with her twin.
Installation-based work is realised to a similarly high standard. Phoebe Mackie makes work about processing memories, and invites viewers to tear a page from her wafer-paper prints, rip it up and watch it dissolve in water in a Belfast sink in a kind of quiet ritual. Carla Smith celebrates the fun of a shared meal with a table laid with handmade cutlery and crockery and a pasta vending machine.
Georgia Walker looks at the theme of voyeurism with a recreation of a bedroom which we are invited to explore and a VR tour of her own personal space. Erin Jarrett explores sectarianism by building a bar and printing slogans on beer mats and communion wafers.
Tracey Clark (as Chroisloch Art) uses her job as a carer to ask questions about the impact of lockdown on those already isolated, and invites the people she cares for to be part of her work, writing down their thoughts and memories for her. Sarah Sanger fuses sculpture and screenprinting to explore anxiety and technology.
In Photography, Malgorzata Kotz travelled to Northern Ukraine (before the Russian invasion), to explore the city of Pripyat, abandoned after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, and has taken atmospheric, thoughtful photographs. The same adjectives could be used of Maria Strang, whose work looks at traces of the Clearances in Assynt, while Joshua Jackson takes a colourful look at Northern Ireland through its townscapes and the memories of his family.
Meanwhile, artist-run organisation Look Again hosts Emergent, showcasing the work of nine artists who have just completed a Graduates in Residence programme at Gray’s. The majority of them graduated in 2020 and 2021 and did not have a physical degree show.
The artists were invited to select an object from the RGU Art & Heritage Collection to respond to. Iris Walker-Reid has chosen a painted door by David Pettigrew, part of his final-year work in 1971, and makes it part of the show, placing it within a doorframe she has made and making it more of a portal then ever.
Painter Marcus Murison has found kinship in a painting by George Ziffo from 2000 which speaks to his own exploration of the urban environment. Textile artist Kirsty Robertson looks at Shetland knitting patterns, and then creates textiles work using what she has learned and her own family narratives.
Others use the collection works as a trampoline-like jumping-off point. Ben Cairns starts with 19th-century glass models of crystals and finishes with photographs of once-inhabited landscapes in the North-east. Performance duo Olive and Anya (Joe Morris and Claudia Sneddon) start with photographs of respiration expenditure tests from the 1970s, and end with ‘2 Pink 2 Stink’, a visceral film challenging expectations across the queer/hetero divide. They’re out to shock and it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but, like so much of the work from Gray’s this year, the depth of thought and quality of presentation can’t be faulted.