Fine art degree shows exist in a curious vacuum: here is the culmination of many wild imaginations encouraged over the course of the MA year, free from the constraining need for commercial value twinned with the pressure of external criticism. Thus incubated and allowed to flourish, the fizzing energy and pazazz that characterises the works on display here is invigorating.
Yet MA fine art, in being free from constraint, is also generally free from direction and structure: at the risk of sounding patronising, what inspiration and distinguishing life knowledge can students in their flush of youth possibly experience to inform their personal talent and provide sorely needed substance? In this respect the vast majority of works by MA fine art students at Chelsea College of Art are full to bursting with stuff and more stuff rather than applying considered restraint to their ideas. By contrast, the MA students of Drawing and Theatre Design at Wimbledon College of Art prove that applied arts also means applied thought, with pieces that intelligently demonstrate how art is still relevant.
The corridors or Chelsea College are filled with sculpture, installation and bits and pieces in various media in the Philippa Barlow school (no pun intended) of art and craft: cardboard, driftwood and neon (surely Emin et al have done neon to death) jostle against more inventive experiments in mixed media, such as Nicholas Cheeseman’s sculptures subverting the classic clay pot in reconstructed paper fragments and melted resin: one of the few to display an hypothesis alongside the flailing offerings. Similarly refreshingly inventive is Matthew Higgins’s fantasy cityscapes created using anything from circuit boards to star anise and pumpkin seeds, melding the technological with the natural in a curious imagining of city hybrids, showing an admirable grasp for textures and clever manipulation.
There is a massive array of creativity in evidence, though only really is successful when applied to a specific problem or even theme; much else for all the paint splatter, stencils and artfully arranged chaos, appears to say not very much but extremely loudly.
A recurring aim throughout several pieces is the desire to shock using sex and pornography in a deliberately irreverent manner: the first installation features stencils declaring “Just wanking”, others feature pornographic cut outs and crude lewd drawings. Even the sole traditionalist painter has completed a series of hyper-realistic but hardly subtle homoerotic nudes.
Perhaps it is not entirely unfair to say that this is the substance and experience which so colours the students’ lives and therefore has been resorted to for so-called gravitas or transgressive breaking boundaries. Whatever the reason, the method again smacks of the self-referencing school of Emin.
More consistently successful are the works at Wimbledon College where no one has felt the need to sprinkle their work with assorted genitalia. MA Drawing in places successfully combines this most traditional discipline with the conceptual in simple but very effective ways: Ana Luisa Menezes’s video ‘Dissolving Matter’ shows disembodied hands sharpening a pencil endlessly and fruitlessly.
Baruno Xiao and Jack Huang’s installation ‘Is it Sunflower’ plants a white silhouette of Van Gogh’s most famous sunflowers amongst a tub of earth scattered with real decaying flowers. This is conceptualism done correctly; where ideas and themes suggest themselves and stimulate interpretation, rather than work that is so obtuse that starting pointers are needed to show the viewer where even to begin.
Most striking in this discipline is Gavin Edmonds’s ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, a life size replica of ‘Minerva Protects Pax from Mars’ by Rubens, with an accompanying video showing the artist rubbing away the drawing until only the barest traces remain – indeed the pencil rubbings still litter the floor in evidence. It is a compelling comment on the importance we attach to Old Masters, as well as playing on the historical process of making paintings, using under-drawing and a highly rigid hierarchy of studio assistants. Even the sheets of paper have been stitched together betraying a keen feel for the small details that went into making now hallowed paintings. Notable also is Quian Lin’s grisaille studies of dancers; as a documenting exercise her draughtsmanship skills transmit an immediacy and intimacy. A quiet but affecting example of when skill well executed is compelling in itself.
Notable amongst the MA Theatre Designers, which perhaps can be poorly represented when work representative of a larger idea has to be crammed into the exhibition space amongst others, is the immersive installation by Georgios Trikkaliotis. ‘Puck, a Timeless Satyr’ is a relatively simple idea, with the viewer invited to wander darkened footways as if exploring the character from within. The work was created with the help of Actress Alice Bristow and Director Fiona Gent. Its effect is disorientating, startling and playful, with imagined phrases spoken by a – female – actor interjecting the darkness at abrupt points and from differing origins in the corridors. The success of the piece is owed to the performance of the actor, however this should be recognised as an excellent exercise in using the language of theatre as a mode of character exploration, showing how theatre design stretches beyond the basics of stage dressing.
Degree shows will always by nature be a mixed bag, and once again with regard to form and structure, the old adage that constraint is the facilitator of creativity is indeed still key to producing works with any real origin and purpose. It is worth seeing alone for works blissfully free from the need for marketability or earning a crust – it feels literally as if anything goes here – which is unlike any commercial exhibition you will see.
Words: Olivia McEwan © Artlyst 2014