In the postmodern world of art, tertiary institutions have increasingly ditched technical skills in favour of conceptual innovation. In London, art colleges that pride themselves on technical excellence are a rare commodity.
There are a number of reasons for this. In the twentieth century, artists began to challenge the role of art in society. Many sought to jettison the equation of ‘art’ with ‘decoration’. Before then, much artistic output in the West had served to adorn the hallowed interiors of churches or to hang on the walls of the rich and the famous merchants who commissioned it. Other artists took things one step further, by not only questioning the purpose of art, but by interrogating the very notion of art itself (previously defined narrowly by its medium – painting, drawing or sculpture). In the 1970s, a proliferation of radical art practices emerged, many of which sought to break with the past and to decommodify art as a thing that could be bought or sold. Land art, performance art and body art were some of the by-products to emerge from this era.
As this spirit of rebellion spread, art education invariably began to change. In the UK, art schools gradually became less and less concerned with the craft of making, preferring to judge the quality of a work on the strength of its theoretical underpinnings. As a result, most of the big brand art colleges in London purposefully do not teach technical skills as part of their fine art degrees (although technicians are generally available on standby where technical input is required). Internationally renowned schools such as Goldsmiths, the Chelsea College of Art and Design and Central St Martins have all jumped on the anti-skills bandwagon.
By contrast City & Guilds of London Art School (C&G) places a strong emphasis on making and the quality of the finish. On its website, and somewhat unusually for a contemporary art college, C&G describes its fine art course as “prioritising the craft base of practice and respecting the value of tradition as a dynamic rather than a conservative force.”
Perhaps one of the reasons why C&G has been able to buck the mainstream is because it operates as an independent charitable trust. This has enabled C&G to survive as an example of that dying breed of small autonomous art colleges that once characterised the London art scene before many of them were amalgamated into super-sized universities. Contrast C&G to the University of the Arts London (UAL), which is a good example of the (contrary) trend towards consolidation in the tertiary education sector. (UAL is a collegiate university, which consists of six constituent colleges – Camberwell, Central St Martins, Chelsea, the London College of Communication, the London College of Fashion and Wimbledon. UAL is also the largest university in Europe for arts and design).
But, does size really matter, or does technique count for more? C&G claims that its small, intimate atmosphere is what sets it apart from the rest of the pack. This has enabled C&G to establish and maintain a generous student to teacher ratio, which ensures that students receive significantly higher doses of tutor contact time than they would at a larger institution such as UAL, (where, in some fine art courses, undergraduate students can count themselves lucky if they meet with a tutor more than twice a month).
Moreover, the effect of C&G’s policy of promoting tutor-student interaction has not gone unnoticed in the media. In April 2011, Modern Painters (magazine) used a survey that it conducted of art world professionals to create a list of the top 10 UK art schools: C&G was ranked third, after the Royal College of Art (ranked first) and the Royal Academy of Art (ranked second). Remarkably, C&G was the only school offering courses at an undergraduate and postgraduate level, to secure a place in the top three (both the RCA and the RAA are postgraduate only colleges).
Thus, it was not without curiosity that we ventured forth to the C&G fine art MA degree show. Our first impressions? C&G’s emphasis on the skill of making undoubtedly carries through into the physical quality of the work, which was very well executed. The presentation was also highly professional – far more so than the other degree shows that we have seen this year. Each artist’s display was accompanied by a full set of business cards, postcards, an artist’s statement and a price list.
However, on the whole, we found the conceptual quality of the art to be less impressive. Somewhat disappointingly, much of the work on show gave the impression perhaps of playing it a little too safe, of sticking a little bit too much to the rules, of somehow lacking that special spark that is vital to the lifeblood of great art.
Nevertheless, some of the highlights were as follows:
Chloe Leaper, Plains of passage, 2012 (detail) (needles, pins, nylon thread and pencil lines)
Leaper’s sculptural ‘drawings’ interrogate the distinction between the mental (immaterial) and physical (material realms. Her work mixes two-dimensional and three-dimensional elements that allow the viewer’s attention to rest within them.
Juliette Mahieux, Oracles, 2012 (oil on canvass)
Mahieux’s paintings both draw on and jar with her classical training at the Spinelli Art and Restoration Institute in Florence. In the images shown here, two meticulously painted female nudes are depicted against a floral background, which recalls the intricate designs of craft-artisans such as William Morris. Breaking with the Renaissance tradition which inspires Mahieux’s art, each figure holds a disembodied head, thus creating a somewhat surreal effect.
Jatinder Singh Gill, Parallax, 2012 (installation view) (mixed media)
Gill trained as an architect, and has consequently created a hybrid studio practice that incorporates elements of art and architecture. In Parallax, the artist attempts to convey the dual processes of building up and stripping down. Rusty toolboxes, neatly laid bricks and semi-architectural forms are placed alongside each other as a way of communicating the personal archaeological origin of humankind and its displacement within the built environment that characterises contemporary cities.
Richard Crawford, Urban Birds, 2012 (installation view) (mixed media)
In real-life, Crawford is an avid bird watcher. In his art, he seeks to highlight the need for their conservation. Whether he’s placing etchings of birds inside a wooden cabin or creating three-dimensional sculptures of birds and placing them on top of plastic and other man-made materials, the artist seeks to portray birds as a neighbour species in the urban landscape that man has created.
Words and images: Carla Raffinetti © Artlyst
Except for images of Chloe Leaper, Juliette Majieux © City & Guilds of London Art School