Visual arts review - Seeking out their niche in the world

OPENING the degree show season, Duncan of Jordanstone's students stake a claim to future glory with this cornucopia

DEGREE SHOW 2008 ****


THE resourcefulness of young artists, using whatever is to hand as a starting point for their inventiveness, was more than demonstrated by the excellent contributions of artist-run projects to this year's Glasgow International. Now, as Duncan of Jordanstone opens the Scottish degree show season, the enterprising spirit is proved to be as alive in Dundee as in any other city in Scotland.

Tutors say this has been a year of self-starters, students prepared to get their sleeves rolled up and get on with whatever it takes to make their art: cajole colleagues into being their models, haggle for scrap metal, procure animal parts. Two students, Fraser McDonald and James (Euan) Taylor, have run a gallery from a locker, completely undaunted by the fact their "space" is not much more than a foot wide, and persuaded some famous artists – David Shrigley among them – to "exhibit".

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McDonald's own work in the degree show explores his interest in the curating process, in the paraphernalia of the contemporary art world – which he compares to a kind of human croquet – and the impact this has on the work itself. In a field which seems to be increasingly self-referential, he will easily find a niche.

Taylor, meanwhile, has forsaken the inside of the building altogether and installed himself in a portable building in the car park. He casts himself as a "specialist in futile endeavours" with this as his workshop, creating wooden stairways and ramps around campus which lead nowhere, or go up simply in order to come down again. This is something of a metaphor for so much of art. It is endeavour without a utilitarian purpose, but it does create a world which is a lot more interesting.

And Debbie Holmes's world has meticulously cut billboard letters spelling the words "struggle" and "pressure". There has been plenty of both here in these past few months. Now we are privileged to witness the results.

With more than 70 students graduating in Fine Art alone, this is a rich and bounteous show, spreading itself across the labyrinthine complex of buildings. Traditionally strong on painting, Duncan of Jordanstone is pushing the conceptual envelope too with a course in art, philosophy and contemporary practice, run in conjunction with Dundee University.

It is also continuing to consolidate its reputation in digital arts. Time-based art is part of the media, arts and imaging department, distinct from fine art, though many students blur the boundaries by building concept-driven practices using sound, film, word and image.

Themes tend to emerge unbidden from degree shows, and there is a strong strand at Duncan of Jordanstone this year exploring the relationship between people and animals. Ashley Nieuwenhuizen uses film, sculpture, photography, drawings, words and installation to create an extensive and disturbing body of work featuring fur, skin, butchered meat and a film of the artist eating animal hair.

Lauren Gault draws on her upbringing on a farm to explore notions of human and animal instincts, also using a broad mix of media. Ai Kato has created an enigmatic series of sculptures using fur and fabric, duck beaks and oyster shells and is one of several students who use printmaking to great effect as part of a wider practice.

Camilla Symons, a consummate draughtswoman, has switched from pencil to silverpoint, exploring death in nature by her meticulous rendering of a bird's wing, the fur on a dead rabbit. A crow pecking out an eyeball is a surprisingly gruesome image to find rendered in such a delicate medium.

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Dundee is traditionally strong on figurative work, and this year is no exception: painter Nicole Porter is already chalking up the awards for her large-scale portraits done in the art school; Jo Fraser's style is more free, and her subjects are children, or perhaps childhood itself, and its boredom, self-consciousness and latent energy.

Fraser Gray's interest in street art means that his focus is not just in being a figurative painter (though he is one) but in his art's relationship to walls. Iain Sommerville's starting point is the Punch and Judy show, its violent history the ideal inspiration for a exploration of the dark side of masculinity in sculpture and lively paint sketches redolent of Ralph Steadman.

Others take the figurative style in new directions: Alistair Ian Jelks's self-portrait in cast iron; Rebecca Lindsay's giant wooden man; Richard Sharp's paintings inspired by Alasdair Gray's Lanark; Casey Campbell's films and photographs; Ge Zhang's photorealist works inspired by her Chinese heritage.

Some find inspiration in the darker corners of their personal experience: Dawn Campbell has recorded members of her family talking about her brother's death and created a sound work in which they seem to talk to one another, a conversation she believes they will never have in life; Lauren McCorkindale looks unflinchingly at suicide; and Elizabeth Gulland has created moving work about the death of her mother and her own process of moving on from the past.

Others are drawn to places to which most of us don't spare a thought: David Anderson illuminates in his fine paintings the underpasses, hallways and multi-storey car parks of Dundee; Ross Brown seeks out waste grounds, while Joyce Stewart has produced some fine woodcuts inspired by a former ammunitions depot in Stirlingshire.

Still others work in sound and film, such as Scott Gordon, whose work is partially a musical composition, and Raymond Wood, who seems as much an actor and musician as an artist. Graeme Plunkett's Enhanced Birdcage generates random musical notes from the movements of a caged canary.

Breeshey Gray stages a tea-drinking ceremony in her kitsch-ified living room, while Nadia Rossi invites the viewer to become a participant in her installation by moving around behind the walls like a poltergeist, pushing out drawers and sending notes to viewers urging them to general mischief.

This is a vigorous cohort of students and there is every indication they will take their energy and resourcefulness forward into life outside college. These are artists who will find space for themselves – even if it's only a locker.

• Duncan Macmillan is away.