Gray's School of Art Degree Show 2016: The Review

The most remote of the big four degree shows, Gray's opens this Saturday. 2016's graduates present strong works from across all media, and make for some of the highlights of this degree show season

Feature by Adam Benmakhlouf | 17 Jun 2016

Gray’s School of Art has always set the bar high. A three-hour round trip separates Glasgow from the school's Aberdeen base, but Gray’s consistently produces work that’s importantly and interestingly distinct from that in the Central Belt. 2016’s degree show is no different, and more than worth the schlep.

We start with Shirley, who used to be Kim Wilde’s cleaner. “People tell me I look like her,” she says, in The Life of Shirley – a short video on a little screen. They’re wrong, but Shirley’s also Contemporary Art Practice graduate Josie Hudson’s saucy and passive aggressive alter-ego. See her walk down the grassy bit outside Gray’s and complain when a bus driver doesn’t drop her at her front door. With a (Kim) Wildean wig, she’s somewhere between Sasha Fierce and imaginary friend Right Said Fred.

In a looping two-projector face-off, the bitterness reserved for Kylie Minogue becomes self-deprecation. “You need me,” she tells herself. “If it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t know how to cope.” All the acidic half-jokes become ingrown. It’s maybe some acknowledgement of the kind of personae needed to survive a degree show: abstract painter, war artist, personal confessor and post-internet videographer/animator.

Nostalgia, atmosphere and geometry

Articulating a different kind of nostalgia, we find a reference to the 60s conceptualism of Lawrence Weiner and Ed Ruscha; all-caps text, black on white. Prioritising simplicity, Dimitra Laina has painted a neatly-stencilled 'STRAIGHT LINE OF 27’6’' with accompanying text on the next wall. Referencing a deadpan school of aesthetic asceticism, it’s an unselfconscious art historical moment, and by attaching herself firmly to a distinctive legacy of artmaking, Laina presents the most strikingly pared-down presentation of this year’s degree shows.

Also dropping any anxiety of influence is Charlotte Johnstone, whose paintings of gardens refer to early 20th century big names like Raoul Dufy and Pierre Bonnard. Layering semi-figurative growths and daubs, there’s often no room for painterly space. Instead, they are images of humid closeness, in terracottas and hot purples. On the opposite wall, Johnstone displays a series of ink brush drawings that keep the same sense of atmosphere in black and white.

Classmate Katie H Watson goes instead for a noisy kind of short mark-making and thick impasto. Complex flat geometries are overlaid on repeated green marks in one, with the straight lines carved into the wooden surface through the uneven brush marks. In another, thick threaded heavy stitching separates the horizontal but looming field from the vertical – tall trees described with only suggestive shapes and a mauve grey sky. Some are flat and aerial seeming, while others create ambiguous, shadowy and charged spaces, though there’s a consistent experimentation with landscape convention.

Ann Gray 's work makes up an indiscernible code of repeated I's. She makes a wall-hung scroll and prints from distressed paper, filled with paragraphs of the notches. All of it looks ancient and alien, like a prop from Indiana Jones or a museum counterfeit. The prints are especially complex, repeating triangle segments inside complicated polygons.

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More from our 2016 degree show reviews:

 ECA: Graphic Design and Illustration

 ECA: Design, Film and TV & Animation

Also included is a larger-than-life photo print of a woman standing in the pose of a Madonna statue, with the same draping and folding forms but coming from the plastic sheeting that clads her naked body. Hinting at lost languages and the blockbuster prop aesthetic of precious documents and artefacts, there’s a knowing and wilful clashing of different visual signifiers: futuristic, antique, Close Encounters.

There’s the same kind of impressive detail work in Harmony Bury’s take on body modification, though with much greater delicacy. This is understandable considering her medium of choice is the wings of honeybees and butterflies. In a series of photos, they’ve been attached carefully to hands, a bottom lip and the fringe of an ear. At points they’re elegant, but then as they bunch around a slightly bloodshot eye, they begin to look like a smattering of fairly disturbing (if intriguing) growths. 

Also sharing a labour-intensive repetition is Rebecca Grant. Working with graph paper and grids, there’s a visual representation of time passing. Though minimal in aesthetic, Grant makes efforts to ensure the personal content is known, that each drawing represents “people who have passed.” With only the barest means (graph paper, ink) and a deliberately cool exhibition style of basic wooden frames with plenty of space, the unexpected reference to loss and death is made without condolences.

Thinking of lost family members, but bundling in the clutter, we find Ellie Nash’s living room installation. Old bric-a-brac and family photos decorate her space, and the walls are painted a more homey (but slightly dingy) green. Sitting on the armchair, the bin’s moulding and a sign’s been left alerting the cleaners not to empty it. There’s an obvious but nevertheless discomfiting hoarding – some things are cracked and broken, with the suggestion they've been saved from an old loft, garage or skip. A too-big shrine, it’s a tender memorial to inconvenient and odd grief.

Video: antisocial dwellings

In video, there are different enquiries into the antisocial. For Nick Cronin, multistorey living is the concern. Large TVs are on their back with headphones playing different recordings of people living in the same flat, as they describe meeting neighbours only when there’s been a flood, or knowing by smell that a neighbour smokes a lot of weed. All in sequence, the different screens show high residential buildings’ lights turn on and off, then what look like code scrolling – feeling like a stand-in for an image of social control when combined with the grainy, voicemail-esque testimonies. Feeling like channel-surfing in the dark, the looping video sequence without obvious landmarks veers between visual noise and subtle repetition.

Setting up his camera down alleyways and around corners, Henning Stednitz distinguishes the snapshots he displays from street photography as very short videos. In this way, they’re more in line with private CCTV surveillance, the camera being set up long enough for his subjects to be aware of being watched – two women looking questioningly down the street and into the lens. There’s a familiar distanciation of people watching from afar. Is this creep misanthropy or some kind of public interest?

For Devin Evans, there’s a different kind of alienation at play. Layering shots of putting on makeup with snippets from the morning news, there’s a frustrated domesticity as she taps her feet anxiously on the couch. Evans makes a recognisable match-up between everyday routine and the daily world news cycle, letting them run safely in parallel without meeting in any significant way.

More ambiguous still, there’s Rachel Law’s large wooden structures. Right behind the door of the ground floor studios, they have to be navigated on the way in an out. Just beams fixed together, without a facade, they're the same kind of timber skeletons as you'd find in most buildings, and there’s a kind of demystifying clarity of what they’re made of and how they’re put together. Going past them on the way out, the camera (that sits plainly on one of the works’ steps) projects the passer-by’s back, making for a sharp moment of bodily and spatial awareness.

Runs from 18-25 June