Glasgow School of Art Degree Show 2008

Andrew Cattanach takes us on a guided tour of his picks of the class of 2008

Feature by Andrew Cattanach | 07 Jul 2008

It’s the end of another academic year and the Glasgow School of Art is showcasing its recent graduates in the annual degree show. Another batch of Fine Art students are given over to the public gaze after four years of hard graft. The idea is that the students display work that is exemplary of their well-honed maturity and skill. At least that’s the idea. What you in fact get is a sample of comprehensive excellence alongside the half-formed ideas of those still deep in the experimental stages. Perhaps that’s the beauty of the degree show: whether you’re ready or not, it’s show time.

There’s no better place to begin than with the work of Oliver Murray, a perfect example of the kind of maturity you hope to see at the degree show. Murray’s video installation shows an unforgiving arctic landscape of glacial peaks surrounded by an ominously dark ocean. We pass over the landscape as though in flight, following the exaggerated curvature of the earth toward an ever present horizon. Murray plunges us into the cold existential bleakness of the landscape and leaves us there, shivering.

To ward off the presiding angst I enter the adjacent room only to find that I’ve been duped. The technology that continually produces this landscape is laid out before me: the mountains are in fact bin bags stapled to a barrel-shaped structure turning on a central axis, filmed on a camcorder. Murray’s installation is not simply about duping its audience; it ridicules our all too human willingness to be launched into an emotional abyss when presented with an unfathomably vast landscape. Like David Casper Friedrich on a comedown, we are doubly confronted with our own humility in the face of nature, both real and illusory.

In the Mackintosh Gallery, three wooden struts have apparently detached themselves from the interior of the building and started levitating in the central stairwell. In fact they form part of a hopelessly relentless machine by the artist Natalie Lambert. A sideways jibe at the heritage industry, the struts ape Mackintosh’s rustic pomposity. Interestingly, although the work directly references the original Charles Rennie Mackintosh interior, it dare not touch those sacred surfaces. Therefore, various clamps and ropes have been utilised to lessen the effect it might have on the priceless interior – a reminder that the spirit of Mackintosh really does haunt this building in the form of reverence and kid-gloved intervention.

For those less inclined toward the conceptual, Jack McConville’s paintings are about surface and colour. They depict assemblages of ill-formed shapes and painterly marks. It seems incidental whether a patch of colour remains a patch of colour or becomes an object. One painting has leery eyes and a scorched, black mouth that grimaces at you like a peeved Henry the Hoover. Smoke seems to billow out from nothing in particular.

Thomas Varley’s work invokes a post-war gloom of high-rise flats and human suffering. Clay figures crumble away at the face and feet to expose wire armatures beneath. One figure has a mucky bag over its head. Le Corbusier-esque towers made from wooden rods operate as a formal antithesis to the figures and speak of dehumanising housing projects. What seem to be scale models of medieval axes and B-movie blood stains on the wall unfortunately dilute a potentially harrowing series of works.

Sarah Ingersoll’s dead stag sculpture lies on its back in the middle of the room, its legs in the air, intestines uncoiling all over the floor. A little mouse lies next to it, also dead, its little pink paws stretched out. Death, so rarely funny, here makes me want to sing. But maybe there’s a darker side to Ingersoll’s work? If so, I can’t see it for all the joy it brings.

Overall, this year’s degree show is less about the magnum opus – particularly common amongst the Sculpture and Environmental Art departments – with plenty of artists instead showing collections of smaller works. Although a pleasant change, too often the spaces become overcrowded with disparate works, leaving the viewer uncertain of what to feel or think. This is particularly evident of those artists experimenting with several different media. But, to reiterate, a lot of these artists are still just mucking around and the degree show only marks the end of the first four years of a far longer process. I look forward to seeing their work in several years' time, when some of them will still be clumsily fiddling around with those half-baked ideas. The best artists, after all, are never through experimenting.