Art reviews: Edinburgh College of Art and Glasgow School of Art Degree Shows

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EDINBURGH COLLEGE OF ART DEGREE SHOW 2008 **** EDINBURGH COLLEGE OF ART

GLASGOW SCHOOL OF ART DEGREE SHOW 2008

****

VARIOUS VENUES, GLASGOW

ONCE again Edinburgh College of Art and Glasgow School of Art are running their degree shows concurrently. It is a convenience for your art critic, no doubt. But it is also more than that. They are our two largest art schools. Significantly they have also both preserved their status as independent institutions. Taken together, their shows should give a good idea of the rising generation and of the country's artistic pulse. They are now the two largest of five art schools, no longer just four; they were joined recently by Moray College in Elgin, an important new beginning under the aegis of the University of the Highlands and Islands.

Edinburgh and Glasgow are both vigorous shows, but they are also diverse and that is a good thing. Certainly there is a lot of reflection here on what the artist's role should be. That is what you hope a serious student might be doing – though a lot of them in the absurd current cant talk about their art as their "practice". It is a usage that suggests they think they are doctors or dentists, not artists who make things. The prevailing idea seems to be that the artist is like a licensed jester. In medieval times the jester's job was not just to make people laugh, but to come up with the unexpected, the off-the-wall comment that would also make them think, even to say the unsayable.

Translating that idea to the role of the contemporary artist gives you a work like that of Brian Hewitt at ECA. He gives us an extraordinary statistical self-portrait. Taking his life so far and predicting the date of his own death (some time off, I am glad to say), he has running totals on a screen of his heartbeats, the breaths he has taken, the distance he has travelled, astronomically as well as terrestrially as we all hurtle around the sun. Concurrently he gives the running total of the estimated number of births, of species made extinct, of stars created and so on. It sets him in the universe and us with him. All right so far, but what next? This approach leaves the artist peering into himself looking for something else interesting to say, but with very few resources to draw on.

Also in Edinburgh, Anna Robbins puts a jelly on a stand and alongside it rising dough, and then reflects a little pretentiously on these things as metaphors of life's processes and their transience.

One way of dealing with this search for depth in the shallows is single-issue art. Bridget Steed has done an exhaustive piece of research into the history of 37 Inverleith Place, a building gifted to Edinburgh College of Art by the Salv-esen family. It served as the college's printmaking department for years, but was recently sold. She follows the story, not just of the building, but of the family and its whaling history. It is fascinating, but I do wonder if she might not have been better doing a history degree.

Antonia Gallagher might certainly have been an archaeologist. Her show is devoted to the analysis of a site and the meticulous drawing of archaeological finds. But there is more straightforward stuff too. Rebecca Witko's amazing three-dimensional painting/construction made up of cut-out bits in jazzy colours is really inventive. So is the much quieter work of Becky Campbell. Not quite like anything else I have ever seen, it is an assemblage of hundreds of watercolours hung together like an enormous paper chain. Sculpture student Michael Brown has made a really impressive Last Judgment, or that is what it seems to be, with a black figure looming over a sunken building. Gwen Thompson-Marchesi illustrates an Aesop's Fable with a fierce-looking life-sized donkey.

Paul Dunn takes us to discover a dubious god at the heart of a claustrophobic labyrinth. Robert Powell's satirical prints are quite brilliant. Darren Buchan's long construction combining painting and found pieces of wood is successful if reminiscent of work from 40 years ago. But then there are quite a lot of throwbacks like that, in Glasgow as in Edinburgh.

In Edinburgh, for instance, Michael Owen seems to start from Franz Kline: perhaps a healthy sign, a recognition that the present can't be self-sufficient, but must always learn from the past.

In a new departure, the individual rooms in the Edinburgh show have been put together by the students themselves choosing works that hang together harmoniously. It looks good, although sometimes it is difficult to identify exactly who has done what.

In Glasgow, the different disciplines within fine art – painting, sculpture, photography and environmental art – are shown together and this is confusing in a different way. They muddle them up. A photographer will have made sculpture, a painter will have made photographs, and so on. The old boundaries are gone, but the search for artistic purpose continues.

Maybe Samuel Fenn hasn't quite found it when he writes the comment on the wall "How I got my degree through clever titling and a sense of irony" – though I suppose his whole installation of retro-photographs and related matter displays his claim to a sense of irony. Tiago Andrade achieves a piece of genuine Surrealism with a mackerel hanging from a kind of sledge. I was assured the fish is changed from time to time, but then maybe, too, that diminishes impact. Equally unsavoury, but less imaginative, was a piece of raw offal put on a plinth by Gary Bolam.

Continuing this organic theme rather more sweetly is a large installation dripping honey by Rose Hugh-Jones labelled with an unexpected reference to Helen Bannerman's very un-PC children's book, Little Black Sambo: "The next best thing to tiger butter pancakes." In contrast to Sambo, Lindsay Hall turns to Greek tragedy for inspiration, creating an evocation of Antigone in a beautiful white, shroud-like dress. In another unexpected throwback, her drawings recall John Minton and the illustrative styles of the 1940s and 50s.

Also turning to inspiration in the past, Steven Robertson has made a really ambitious sculptural essay in the manner of Mir and Calder with floating coloured shapes linked by wiry lines of bent steel drawing in space. Katie Boner takes inspiration from Caspar David Friedrich in her beautiful small landscapes.

Ella Clogstoun should get a prize for the sheer exuberance of her composite work, tottering towers of flowery china cups and a hut with its windows choked with massed paper flowers. Claire Harrison is more morbid, with an extraordinary composition of blackened bones – wax, not the real thing – which compose the skeleton of some huge imagined creature, incinerated in some unknown catastrophe. Her equally macabre woodcuts alongside are remarkable.

Perhaps in response to Damien Hirst there are a number of other skull and bone compositions around too. Adam Blair-Pryde makes abstract compositions from bone shapes. He paints good portraits too. Sarah Ingersoll has made a stuffed stag. Stitched in the manner of Louise Bourgeois, it is spilling its scarlet cloth guts across the floor.

Fittingly, Carol Campbell has set up a prize for figurative painting in memory of her late husband, Steven, one of Glasgow School of Art's most distinguished graduates. She has called it the Steven Campbell Hunt Medal. Its title recalls a character called Hunt whose adventures filled the paintings in Steven Campbell's own degree show. In its first year the medal was awarded to Clare Paterson for some big vigorous paintings very much in the tradition that he established.

Glasgow has spilled over into the McLellan Galleries, with part of the show housed in studios there.

As I left, I noticed a large cast iron bath reposing with great dignity at the top of the marble staircase. It is not an art work, apparently, just an element of building work in progress, though why there was ever a bath in the Galleries, I can't imagine.

Nevertheless, it was surely a missed a opportunity. Some enterprising student should have put a label on it and claimed it as their own.

&149 ECA Degree Show until 24 June; GSA until tomorrow