I’m lost! its a familiar feeling walking around the annual slew of degree shows. Arrows pointing me into out-of-bounds staff rooms with a barely readable map in my hand. I always wonder- what am I doing here? why go through this pain? well, its a bit like digging for gold, you’ve got to sift through the derivative and muddily confused works, of which there are many to find something which has a sense of clarity to it, something that can knock you side ways. Each art school has a specific sensibility,the degree show becomes a kind of marketing tool for the college and a way of enforcing a brand within a highly competitive market. This year the stand out art schools were Goldsmiths (cerebral) and Slade (eclectic), in that they seem to have created the best context for the graduating students. Slade’s eclecticism and context within the wider apparatus of UCL created an environment where students looked outside the hermetic discourses of art school, making work that deals with the social, political and economic context in which their work is shown. A work that I was very impressed by was ‘Err’, by Jeremy Huchtinson on the MFA at the Slade. Commissioning factory workers internationally to create products with ‘errors’ in them, the work wittily commented on global economic issues within a local and personal context, it was political with a small ‘p’ and a big smile. What ‘Err’, illustrated was an understanding of a broader context, something that seemed to be lacking in a lot of work. Art about art, has become a default academic style, work that processes an historically canonized discourse and feeds it through the vernacular of social media, the computer screen and commodity fetishism. This approach was articulated through the prevalence of process painting via the pixel, a kind of Greenberg for the Facebook generation and the ubiquity of Minimalism written through a contemporary design language.
Raphael Hefti (Slade MFA) interrogated process art from a slightly different angle with his photographs of bullets in mid-flight and photograms of chemical reactions that leave beautiful residual abstractions. The work converged meticulous research with a clarity and the ability to make incredibly forceful imagery. It was something that he shared with Rowenna Hughes and Ed Thomasson (all were included in the Bloomberg New Contemporaries in 2010) also on the MFA Slade. Over at the Royal College I was impressed by the plaster sculptures of Jackson Sprague, Holly Antrum (printing) and Yelena Popova(painting), who were all making formally inventive and intellectually rigorous works. On The Slade BA,Eleanor J. G. Wright stood out in the clutter for her adept responses to the building. What these artists share is an understanding that art is both cerebral and experiential. The best way to engage an audience is to create work that communicates on both an intellectual and visual level.
Another re-current approach was a kind of faux-anthropology; artists such as Tacita Dean, Susan Hiller and Wolfgang Tillmans seem to be big influences. Booths filled with collections of loosely assembled photographs and notes on display boards and tables. Students have absorbed the rhizomatic nature of the internet and process it through the materials of fine art. It is defiantly analogue in an era of increasingly weightless and virtual images.
The largest surprise to me, was the the lack of a ‘culture of protest’, after a year of constant student protests and occupations in response to the cuts and rise in tuition fees, this seemed anomalous. I think there are a number of reasons for this, namely that a degree show is the moment where the collective support mechanism of art school gives way to the individualist market economy outside it. Students seem quick to align themselves as individuals within an economic framework that validates competition.
The Royal Academy seem to be particularly at fault for this. I know many of the artist’s work from studio visits and gallery shows and a lot of the work seemed unrecognisable. It was as if the artists were streamlining the work so that it could be assimilated and circulated much quicker within the ‘art-world’.
Over at Goldsmiths, the range of approaches and styles represented the college well. The work articulated a situation where they were encouraged to develop parallel interests to integrate within their practises. And it is this situation that should be encouraged in a permissive and diverse environment. Not all the graduating artists will continue to make work, and very few of them will ever make much money from their practises, but that seems beside the point. A degree show is a level playing field, a moment to express a cultural freedom before the pressures of turning those forms into money. And long may it continue!