Visual art review: Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design

Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design (DJCAD) Degree Show. Picture: Jennifer Robinson
Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design (DJCAD) Degree Show. Picture: Jennifer Robinson
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THE first of this year’s annual art school showcases is thoughtful but bursting with life, testament to the health of contemporary art on Tayside.

Degree Show

Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design


For all those whose view of contemporary art in Scotland is Glasgow-centric, Dundee would like us to know a thing or two. Luke Fowler, shortlisted for the Turner Prize, is a Dundee graduate, as is the 2010 winner Susan Philipsz, and last year’s winner, Martin Boyce, is to take up an honorary professorship at the college.

It’s not that Dundee is seeking to knock Glasgow off its perch as the first city of contemporary art in Scotland, it’s just a polite reminder of the contribution Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design (DJCAD) makes to Scottish art.

DJCAD is the first of the Scottish degree shows, with nearly 300 students from 11 undergraduate courses loosing their work on the world this week, the usual cornucopia of styles and intentions, hopes and dreams. It is a broad church, even within Fine Art, and related disciplines: Art, Philosophy, Contemporary Practices (APCP) and Time-based Art & Digital Film (TBA). Here you’ll find everything from hyper-realist painting to conceptual experiments.

“These are hard times for dreamers,” says a large wall painting by Sarah Coey, whose work seeks to capture the whimsical thoughts that arrive when the mind is free-wheeling, and is one of several shows making quirky and effective use of text. She’s right, on various levels: it’s a hard time to be dreaming of a career in art. If there is a flavour to this degree show it is thoughtful, serious, considered, rather than confidently exuberant.

College years are a time when many consider the subject of identity, and a number of students have engaged earnestly with this in their work. Of course, one way to examine identity is to change it. Matthew Corden has been gradually transforming himself into Elvis Presley, including the haircut, the sideburns, the signature, and the songs. He will perform at intervals during the show, seated on a gold toilet. Eilidh McKay’s alias as “Professor of Serendipity” is more subtle but her image of an artist setting out on a journey of discovery in a coracle she made herself is emblematic of many artists at this stage in their careers.

Several students have produced searching self-portraits: Heather Anderson’s photographs and film look unflinchingly at body image and how it affects the individual, and Eilidh Morris’ installation of films and text explores the conscious and subconscious mind with an equally stark honesty. In an elegant body of work, Sekai Machache uses the photographic self-portrait to explore different states of consciousness.

Tara Chaloner’s work also consists of self-portraits of sorts. She has colour-coded seven years of bank statements according to survival, play, work etc. It’s a clever experiment in systematising information, which reveals that the facts themselves, like the person behind them, are almost always more complex than the system used to codify them.

Several students are concerned with the female body: Katy Meehan’s thoughtful film and photographs explore female identity through associations with water, while Hayley Fisher explores a range of issues by overlaying images of the female nude on the woodcut illustrations produced by Doré for Dante’s Inferno.

Stephanie Drake is a fine portrait painter who has chosen to paint pairs of fraternal (non-identical) twins. Due to practical constraints, she painted her subjects separately on the same canvas, which adds to the exploration of two individuals who are alike but distinct.

Perhaps exploring your place is an extension of your identity, whether that is an intimate study of a Perthshire farm (Kirsty Jackson), or from the wider area where you grew up (Janet Casey).

Lynda Watson’s paintings draw out the possibility of beauty in ruins, and Victoria Moore describes the disused meteorological station at Shanwell near Dundee as her “muse”. She evokes it with such love and dedication she transforms an unattractive derelict building into a place touching on the sublime.

Sometimes the place under investigation is an invented one. David Fyans has given much time to exploring Chronacair, a fictional island off the West Coast which “disappeared in an unexplained incident”. He details not only its topography and wildlife but its folk songs (for which he has written the music), the “last known film footage” and the top secret (but inconclusive) investigation into its disappearance.

Liam J McLaughlin’s work is a visceral exploration of the failed architecture of modernism. Entering the space by a dark corridor, lit only by images flickering on the ceiling, the viewer watches films made in empty Dundee tower blocks prior to demolition in the uneasy atmosphere of total darkness. Sofia Khan’s show is as bright as McLaughlin’s is dark, but her maze of white corridors, punctuated by grilles and semi-hidden CCTV cameras, is no less threatening. Both artists are making us look afresh at our world.

Kevin Smith begins his show by quoting a story told by David Foster Wallace about two young fish swimming along. They meet an older fish who asks them “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” The two swim on for a while, until one eventually asks the other “What the hell is water?” Part of the business of art, he contends, is to notice the water. Smith’s small but exquisite pencil drawings are a highlight of the show.

Miriam Wilson’s thoughtful drawings of the faces of passers-by, glimpsed in the street or on the train, are another form of noticing the “water”, as are Laura Woodhouse’s paintings, based on glimpses into the lighted windows of cafes and have a touch of Edward Hopper about them.

Jennifer Robinson has concentrated on what she has found on the beach, thoughtfully contrasting found stones and shells with her own beautifully made objects in wood, wax and ceramics. Tim Sandys works on a much larger scale, but he too is a sculptor with a natural feel for materials, and how each material can inform the making process.

Several artists explore themes of recycling and reusing, from the large sculptures of Colin Andrew Sutherland to Craig Thomson’s assemblages of found objects. The ultimate act of recycling, however, is by Tiril Planterose, a horse-lover who has made paper from dung – different textures and smells depend on the horse’s diet.

Ruth Aitken invites viewers to join a work party for her project, “First Reductive Solutions”, to chip away at plaster pyramids, reducing them to dust and chanting as they go. It’s a clever investigation of repetitive activity, through the jargon of business management and mediation. Is it soul-destroying or peace-enhancing? You decide.

Isla MacLeod’s rather beautiful show explores mortality and aims to foster a more wholesome view of death by evoking traditional rituals and natural materials. Benjamin Whitney’s TV-watching robot conjures questions of mortality too, drumming its skeletal fingers on the arm of its chair while watching a film about a monkey trying on a child’s mask.

And there is much more, too much to mention here. Even as Dundee bursts out in artistic colour this weekend for the Ignite Festival, the art college has reminded us that it has a place in shaping the artistic direction of Scotland, not only in the past but also in the future.

• DJCAD Degree Show runs until 27 May.