When they get towards the end of their courses most undergraduates prove themselves in the private silence of the exam hall. Art students are different. Their end-of-year work is brutally laid bare, on gallery display for all to see – examiners, peers and public.
If you belong to the latter group, how should you approach viewing a fine art degree show like Swansea Met’s this month? I’d suggest three basic rules of thumb:
- Discount all the artists’ statements you will find in the catalogue. They mostly use a private language, accessible only to tutors and (sometimes) students but no more comprehensible than Mongolian to others. Common terms include ‘physicality’, ‘liminal theory’, ‘cathartic creativity’, ‘a shout at something seen’, ‘reimaging the banal’, ‘the sleepwalking self’. All this has only the most tangential connection with what you’ll see, and is best ignored. As the students say in the forward to their catalogue, ‘… we think you’re crazy to make us write a statement telling you who we think we are.’
- Put to the back of your mind the stale battles of conceptualism. Most of the students will have given up long ago with trying to make sense of their teachers’ injunctions to philosophise first and make art second, and so should you.
- Remember that however diligent or lazy the students have been in the first two and a half years, they’ve just been through hell – battling for display space, rejecting or yielding to a battery of last minute suggestions from tutors, wondering whether their work is ‘finished’, buying booze for the bar. Be charitable.
The first two things to be said about the 2013 degree show are that it’s immensely varied and of a generally high standard. Performances and installations are few and mainly witty. Hard craft has made a comeback, especially painting and drawing. Colour is everywhere and there’s not too much text. You have the feeling that the students have learned at least as much from one another as they have from the teaching staff.
Of the 24 artists represented these are some whose works struck me as specially interesting.
Charlotte Craddock’s objects – bricks, wood, books – are found, but you need to examine them at close quarters to see how subtly she’s changed them, through the addition of delicate drawings of the human eye, so detailed they mirror what they see. The eye eerily reanimates the object.
Much more directly carnal are the images of Beccie Evans. Her focus is not the eye but the mouth, site of the largest concentrating of nerve endings. To be exact, the female mouth, in motion or brimming with flesh-like objects such as lipstick. A gallery of close-ups, mostly monochrome but with the occasional violent coloured tiles, gradually robs the mouths of any erotic or even decorative connotation.
Other artists are cooler, in subject and treatment. Frances Trace scatters small domestic objects across a sheet: scissors, buttons, fuses, pencils. Or rather she draws them, accurately and minutely, on a white ground. The effect is similar to that staple of Dutch golden age painting, the ‘lacemaker’; their product, silence and questioning.
The work of Heather Lithgow is equally meticulous in its execution. Heather is a sculptor of human heads, imagined portraits, often in (apparent) extreme emotional states, in the style of Hellenistic or baroque sculpture. This work is (apparently) at a considerable distance from postmodern irony or playfulness.
Daniel Trivedy is more certainly a questioner. His most overt work here features an inn sign for ‘The Black Boy’, a Swansea pub that, says Daniel, expunged the original black boy, replacing it with a white one, an action that in its search for sensitivity only succeeded in erasing a racial truth.
Finally, two painters. Elliot Mudd is unafraid to recall the American abstract expressionists. His large paintings swipe large wedges of colour, as well as lines and dots, uninhibitedly across the surface. These are emotional and direct works, and hard to ignore; their colours leap wildly across the spectrum.
Carys Evans (I declare a family interest here) paints the female figure. Her pastel colours might suggest demureness, but these ‘portraits’ are far from consoling. Each is allotted an object or attribute of uncertain relevance. Even more unsettling is the treatment: eyes and mouth are described with textbook naturalism, while other parts are deliberately sketchy or slightly incongruent. Carys’s most recent work is a triptych that seems to show the ‘three ages of woman’, but you would be hard pressed to attribute innocence or wisdom in any conventional way.
You leave the show with the thought: what will these artists do after graduation? Teach? Research? Find a living in their art? Switch to something quite different? In one sense it’s easy to sympathise with them in a time that is especially austere to the arts. On the other hand these are lucky people: each of them has been equipped with a way of seeing the world that not every graduate will enjoy. Like others they’ve developed analytical and interpretative faculties, but they’ve also grown the habit of treating their environment in a formative, creative, personal way, a skill that is not given to all.
See for yourself: the show has a week to run (Dynevor Centre for Art, Design and Media, De la Beche Street, Swansea, till 2 June 2013).