Art review: Degree Show 2010


FORGIVE me, but the time has come to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin. In the world of degree shows, nothing is certain except death and taxidermy. I don't think I've been to one in the past three years that didn't feature at least one stuffed and mounted creature.

The rabbit population in the north-east of Scotland is pretty healthy, so in theory the students can stuff as many as they want. One such takes centre-stage in the work of Heather Stewart (photographic and electronic media, or PEM), as she explores human society, particularly the pressures on women, by training her lens on the animal world. And there's another in the work of printmaker Heather Caldwell, whose prints and collages approach the theme of death.

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Elsewhere, painter Lindsay Stewart makes delicate, poignant oil paintings of the dead mice and small birds which her cat brought home, then groups them together as elements in larger patterns, and Jennifer Paterson makes jewellery inspired by animal skulls.

That said, Gray's Degree Show is full of life. It is the smallest of Scotland's art schools and perhaps the one where students stay most closely within the discipline they've signed up to. But if the painters paint and the printmakers make prints, it also feels as if they're talking to each other, and to the students in the various applied arts.

Within fine art, Gray's has made a virtue of juxtaposing work which is radically different. Tessa Androutsopoulos (printmaking) has created a space exploding with energy and cartoon-style spaceships, missiles and killer teddy bears. You can even follow the train of pink missiles downstairs to her locker, where the show continues.

The other half of the room is occupied by a quieter but equally substantial show by Fiona North, whose paintings contrast the busy work spaces of the college with quiet attics and stairways, making works of sensitive tonality.

Places of different kinds inspire various painters. Stephen Thorpe's clever, quirky interiors are partly informed by the building in which he has a studio, but he constructs them from imagination on rough-edged canvases thick with undercoat, the lines so clear they are almost three-dimensional.

Lyndsey Gilmour paints empty supermarkets, finding unexpected poetry in the rows of silent checkouts and vistas of empty aisles. Katy Storm is interested in the kind of non-places we pass through on an underground train. Steven Kavanagh's body of work is inspired by an old air raid shelter, while Lynsey Ferguson turns her explorations of abandoned buildings into atmospheric colleges of torn paper.

Anna Geerdes is interested in place in a wider sense, in how we use and misuse maps, in rendering the surfaces of the Earth and probing what goes on beneath them. Her substantial body of work suggests an ongoing inquiry. Nicole Russell also uses maps to explore the "complexity and relentless intensity" of the conflict in Iraq.

This year, the sculpture cohort is small, and is joined with PEM to swell the ranks. At times there is a sense in both groups of work which is not as strong as the source material promises. However, Donald Watson (sculpture) has created a stand-out immersive work, inviting us to crawl through a low doorway and climb up a gravel slope bathed in blue light.

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I was on my knees again in the gallery-within-a-degree-show created by Alex Gordon (printmaking), who makes work in three personae: painter Daren Essing, printmaker Sarah B Lear and sculptor Sam Aghdashino. This has given him the excuse, if he needed one, to branch out across the disciplines, creating paintings, prints, and a tunnel at crawling height featuring four films and opening up into an installation of a blackened desert island.

Elsewhere, there is a focus on the human landscape and our relationship with the past. Philip Reid (PEM) is interested in redundant technology – slide-shows, cassette tapes – while painter Jo Macdonald explores our relationship with family photographs. Her large, ambitious paintings of sandcastles and birthday parties are as strange as memory is, murky and mysterious with sudden moments of brightness.

Katie Rodger explores the fractured, untrustworthy nature of memory in her paintings of dolls' houses, and Elaine Murray suggests our distance from the past in paintings inspired by her late grandmother's home on the Isle of Lewis. Meanwhile, in a series of exquisite small paintings, Christy Yates looks wryly at the values we place on the objects we keep. And Naomi Leckie paints small sequences of stills from films, creating new narratives in a handful of frozen frames.

Sculptor Christine Spence has created a mobile of knitted "wombs" to explore her own feelings about birth and motherhood, while Sophia Morton (PEM) draws on her own experience of illness to create a mirrored medicine cabinet populated with paper houses.

Catherine Weir is interested in capturing time, and blends old and new technology to creates a "candle clock" which shows not only the time but a projection of what light looks like at each moment of the day. It is a poignant thing, much easier to experience than it is to describe on paper.

And then there are those who are determinedly engaged in the processes of making: abstract painter Sophie Ormerod; printmaker Audrey Dargie, always experimenting with what print can do; Laura Campbell, who makes delicate, ethereal paintings on glass of soap in water; Lyndsay Gauld, whose prints use porous sheeting used in the distillation of whisky (you don't need to read the accompanying text, your nose will tell you).

In the applied arts, there is a pleasing mixture of seriousness and whimsy. Mags Gray (three-dimensional design) explores the subjugation of women through work with is thoughtful but never ponderous, and Shetlander Daniel Gear (graphic design) assesses the pros and cons of the controversial proposal to site Europe's largest onshore wind farm on the islands.

But the guiding spirit of the show is Lewis Carroll, manifest in book covers, illustrations and crockery, and in the work of printmaker Anna Thompson, who graduated two years ago, but was prevented by illness from staging her degree exhibition.

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It was, she says, like "falling down a rabbit hole", and the freshness and charm and thoughtfulness of her show, with its tea party and numerous white rabbits, shows that even in the midst of adversity there is room for a little enchantment.

• Until 26 June