Visual art review: Gray’s School of Art Degree Show 2012

There is focus, skill andtechnique wedded tothe annual explosionof hope at Gray’s 2012degree show



Rating: ****

The sign on the front door of Gray’s School of Art on the day I visit reads: “Wet paint”. It could be a metaphor for so much of what has been happening in Scotland’s art colleges in the last month as the degree shows are unveiled, each an explosion of hope, talent and energy so fresh it deserves a “wet paint” sign.

Gray’s tends to be the school at which students adhere most rigorously to their chosen discipline: painters paint, sculptors make things and so on. This year, however, the boundaries feel more fluid, perhaps because a new structure is about to be rolled out which will see Sculpture, Printmaking and Photographic and Electronic Media (PEM) become part of a single degree course, with only the painters remaining separate.

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It’s an innovative solution to a question facing all art schools – how to teach the skills of a specialism without restricting the direction in which a student’s creativity might go. However, if this year’s show is anything to go by, a strong student can become highly proficient in their chosen medium without letting it restrict them one jot.

This is exemplified by the best of the printmakers. Aberdeen is one of the only schools to continue to offer printmaking as a specialist degree course in its own right, and the level of technical proficiency is correspondingly high. Ibraheem Adesina is a very fine printmaker, creating landscapes which fuse Western vistas with his native Africa and pose pertinent questions about energy, land use and the politics of oil. But his show is also an installation, incorporating the charred frame of a hut from an African village.

Nicholas Gordon also makes prints, but these play second fiddle to his clever assemblages of objects: driftwood, electronic parts and discarded cutlery, the detritus of modern life. Amy Gear’s prints, on paper and fabric, are infused with the tints and textures of her native Shetland. She also uses paper as a sculptural material, scraping and brushing and embossing to create new textures by hand.

Louise Davidge’s prints, in the ground floor hallway, are not ostentacious but repay time spent, revealing a thoughtful discourse about insignia and how images derive meaning. Katie Shambles’ work has more of a conceptual bent, exploring the notion of a society bent on pleasure. She has also built a booth which invites viewers to smoke, though presumably not in the art school which, like all public buildings, is a no smoking zone.

Shambles (a nom de plume, her real name is Katie Bennett) is one of several students who uses text in their work. JDS Quinn is a sculptor who makes films, but at the heart of his work is a group of texts read aloud, descriptions drawn from city life, capturing the moments when the absurd tips over into something darker.

Graham Kinross (PEM) also has books of stories at the heart of his work, going as far as to arrange his degree show space into a kind of reading corner, with sofas and comfy chairs. Robbie Duncan (PEM), who has made a series of films in collaboration with classmate Stuart Edwards, also shows a set of quirky and accomplished artists’ books. I particularly liked the descriptions of havoc caused by various loose screws, and the collection of different types of air to fill differently coloured balloons. Fiona Stephen (PEM) is a photographer with a quieter, more contemplative, approach, but her major work is also in book form.

Lois Green is a painter with a gift for capturing the most ordinary scenes and illuminating them, but the largest work in her show, as big as a wall of the studio, puts fragments of text at its heart. Jamie Barr also uses fragments of text in his landscape paintings, to capture the sense of layers of story lying under the surface of the land.

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Amy Knowles (PEM) has put the notion of socially engaged art practice into action by posting messages cut from newsprint to each of her neighbours. She is also refreshingly honest about the results of the “Make my neighbour smile” Project: some engaged cheerfully with the idea, but at least one called the police.

The sculptors are an intriguing group this year, with comparatively few of them engaged in making three-dimensional objects. Kay Kelvie used her degree project to follow the life cycle of a pig, from replicating the wooden shed in which her subject lived, to serving up the meat on the barbecue on opening night.

Rachel Grant is interested in the process of mark-making. Her thoughtful work is almost more like painting than sculpture, exploring the tensions between predetermined structures and elements of chance. Laura Duncan is a PEM student but her work is shown with the sculptors. Appropriately so, because it is highly sculptural, from her plaster casts of hands with wires at the wrists to her performance work, where she vacuum-packs her own body in a machine specially built for the purpose. I’m told it’s a disturbing sight, though no students are harmed in the process.

The degree shows at Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen this year all showed some continuing interest in drawing. JJ McKeown is a painting student, but he makes highly accomplished pen drawings exploring our attitudes to the animal world. From much larger preparatory sketches, he has made finished works which are restrained and highly focused.

In terms of scale, painter Mike Hughes does the opposite. But his big abstracts justify their size by a keen sense of shape, colour and the handling of paint. Kelly Craig is a painter but her works are more like relief sculptures, with household objects and children’s toys embedded into blocks of monochrome colour. Sophie Radcliffe’s paintings are highly decorative, building up layers of texture and richness. Katarina Chomova’s paintings, at first glance, look decorative too but she is driving at something else. The layers of patterning capture something of the way nature is reclaiming the stricken city of Chernobyl, as well as exploring how memory lays down layer upon layer of data.

Gray’s is an enjoyable degree show, not only because of its manageable scale, but because students seem to be particularly aware of the need to communicate and present their work to the layperson. Most provide statements for viewers to read, and a good many take the trouble to do so not only in that peculiar form of English which one might call “contemporary art speak” but in accessible language. It’s a good idea to become aware of this at undergraduate level, and something that other colleges might do well to consider more deeply.

• Until 23 June