Art review: ECA Degree Show, Edinburgh College of Art

Work by Jordan Kerr at ECA PIC: Neil Hanna Photography
Work by Jordan Kerr at ECA PIC: Neil Hanna Photography
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In the Edinburgh College of Art Degree show this year, Ladina Clément has made an elaborate spoof of a dealer’s stand at an international art fair. There are red spots, business cards (blank), canvasses (blank and cast in plaster, one broken), a video of the balletic, white-gloved hands of an art handler. There is even a painting composed simply of red spots, but behind the stand the dealer lies collapsed either in exhaustion or despair. It is a nice satire of the corporate market forces that shape the art world and the dealers who service them. But in fact it is the curators working as a highly self-interested, professional cadre, quite as much as the dealers, who have led art down the primrose path of non-material, ideas-based art that it has taken in recent years.

This year’s degree show suggests, however, that in Edinburgh at least, the younger generation is rebelling to turn back to art that is made and once made has a material presence. This may be in part because this is now a digital generation. They were born when the internet was already well established and for them smartphones with instant access to everything are as much part of life as the milkman with his milk-bottles once was. They are conscious of what they risk losing. In her statement in the show’s catalogue, Chloë McCallum actually makes this point, and elsewhere others echo her, as she says how she has been keen “to understand how creating physical works will still be relevant in a digitally dominated art world.”

Work by Sarah Brown at ECA PIC: Neil Hanna Photography

Work by Sarah Brown at ECA PIC: Neil Hanna Photography

The result in her work is a wonderfully rich piece of weaving, but with flashing lines of led lights running through it. In a rather similar mode, using material recycled from old clothes Leanne Dewar has made lively and inventive figures, somewhere between coloured relief and wall-drawing, that dance across the walls. Jordan Kerr actually limits his statement to a brief definition of craftsmanship as “the skill with which something was made or done.” He then shows what he means in a series of very beautiful compositions made out of wood, exploiting the grain to suggest depth and relief much as the Renaissance masters of marquetry once did, but also adding colour to make these into abstract paintings. Equally striking are Jamie Duncan’s paintings that take the forms and flat, bright colours of industrial signage as their starting point, but end up as dramatically bold and entirely abstract images. Quite different, but equally beautiful are images by Jessica Gasson in drawn lines of light that describe the spherical geometry of a bat’s flight. An actual-size, bronze model of a moth extends her interest from the abstract to the objective which is then extended further into a whole imaginary museological display.

It is not that this generation is turning back the clock, nor indeed do they ignore technology, ideas, or indeed the digital world. Andy Grace Hayes, for instance, has invented a whole shadowy and slightly sinister corporate world whose publications and archives seem to echo Facebook’s silent intrusions. Bethany Wood has used technology as well as collage to conduct an ingenious investigation into how our actions in walking vary in different conditions, whether it is uphill or downhill, for instance, or in sand or in pebbles. Alice Eastwood has made model kitchens and photographed them, but also made models of familiar kitchen objects. These become surprisingly beautiful when she makes them into low-relief sculpture. Her idea is a feminist one about equality of domestic labour, but she has managed some good art on the way. Sarah Brown has actually made an entire kitchen with all its white goods, its pots and pans and food in the fridge. She apparently has no ulterior message except to demonstrate her qualification for her chosen career in set building. She certainly has the skills. Ursula Manandhar has made an imaginary piece of forest floor and then echoed its forms in the abstract geometry of folded paper.

The surreal and imaginary also still has its place. Maia Baniel has filled a darkened space with her drawings and Hammer Bead models of bizarre metamorphic figures, all lit by fairy lights.

One age-old idea that has dramatically resurfaced is the artists’ cooperative. Calling themselves Just Guts, five students, Ursula Ilett, Szabi Fricska, Fiona Berry, Niklas Gustafson and Tiki Muir, have joined together to create a show in a mini-pavilion with an upper level in which their individual contributions are not identified. Even their portraits on their respective pages in the catalogue are as a group, the individual in each case only identified by a paper crown. There is some bold wood-carving and chunky carved furniture among their work and also energetic painting echoing Steven Campbell. There is also a whole tiled fireplace with evidence that the artist made the moulds and cast and fired the tiles.

Work by Ursula Manandhar at ECA PIC: Neil Hanna Photography

Work by Ursula Manandhar at ECA PIC: Neil Hanna Photography

There is no ceramic department in the College. It was closed down years ago, short-sightedly it seems, for this is in not the only evidence of students wanting to rediscover the most elemental art form – literally so, as ceramic combines earth, fire and water. Katharine Doyle has made glazed ceramic models of aortas, or at least that is what I think they are. Inspired perhaps, by the fragments of Eduardo Paolozzi’s Tube Station mosaics that have found a home in the College, Emil Pilavsky has created a wall-sized ceramic mural on the remarkable theme of David Beckham’s tattoos. As if this were not enough tribute, he also hired a plane to fly a banner with two of them written on it – “Brooklyn” and “Ut amem et foveam.” In an equally extraordinary installation that overflows with objects and ideas as well as performance with a complete drum kit, Camille Biddel has added some elegant pots that she has thrown and fired herself. Katherine Russel actually describes herself as a ceramic artist “working with themes surrounding craft and functionality,” and her work does include pots. There are ceramic objects in several other shows too. Perhaps the college will now catch up with its students and reintroduce ceramics.

Megan McHugh’s poetic or hortatory inscriptions adorn one of the staircases, but appear elsewhere, too, most startlingly when you look down from a third floor window to see written on the roof below, “For the jumper Poised at the Edge of space, the Freefall presents a thrilling challenge.”

Serafima Mehhovits has painted some beautiful, free flowing abstract paintings. Ilya Uvarov has made an exquisite, black and white sequence of pictures of a sea-shell that starts with the shell distant and in near darkness, then gets closer and closer until the last image is the complete blackness of the shell’s interior. Pip Denham has used plastic in white and primary colours to striking effect, particularly in a piece in which the heads of six white axes are buried in

a block of gleaming ultramarine. Alice Dudgeon has made a freestanding form out of slender wooden elements, a cage but one that paradoxically suggests freedom. As well as making gothic pinnacles out of casting sand, and art out of one of Edinburgh’s anti-terrorist barriers, Jack Handscombe parodies William Blake’s Newton with a figure in racing driver’s gear crouched over a laptop. However, a palm tree sprouting out of his back suggests digital is all very well, but nature will break out, willy-nilly.

"After Blake's Newton (after Paolozzi) by Jack Handscombe

"After Blake's Newton (after Paolozzi) by Jack Handscombe

Until 10 June