A Barrage of Talent: GSA Degree Show 2018

At GSA, the 2018 cohort make a virtue of diversity and distinction, as The Skinny struggles to muster up some thematic patterns, before indulging in the barrage of talent in all its many forms.

Feature by Adam Benmakhlouf | 06 Jun 2018

Now in its fourth year in the Tontine, the Glasgow School of Art degree show experience is no longer feeling like the mysterious labyrinth it felt like back in 2015 in its first iteration here. There are signs in all the right places, and after a bold trial and error at a one way system, the audience is once again free to go back and check out where they’ve just been. There’s a notable diversity to the output, with only a few (as always surprising) themes here: house plants, peeing outside, taking apart the constructed walls. But really this is a grasping at (thematic) straws – the GSA students have managed to display a huge amount of variety and boldness across the 139 presentations that make up the 2018 show

In one intensively laid out room, Fenella Gabrysch’s video work melds its soundtrack with Danny Pagarani’s. In Gabrysch’s work, there are references to the immigrant experience interlaced with images of hands passing water to one another and the subtle gestures of conversation. In a similarly oblique narrative style, Pagarini’s work uses disturbing images of a body in a printed fabric sack in a filling-up bath. Eventually the figure thrashes and screams in suffocation. Across from this video (which is presented in a sculptural tub shape) there’s the literally breezy imagery of the same kind of fabric in the wind. The juxtaposition of suffocation and air, day and night is remarkable and is the setting for the far more ambiguous story of a woman dying. It’s an affecting and mysterious body of work.

Into the next room, there’s an unfortunate clashing of works, as Beth Kitchen’s quiet and beautifully rendered drawing works are set next to a riotous, funny and participative karaoke installation by Rachel Woodside. Such are the hazards of the degree show, and it’s always good practice to take these kinds of coincidences in good stride. Kitchen’s work juxtaposes the handmade mark with mechanical routine. There’s one particular drawing that evidences extremely talented draughtsmanship within a clean grid of perfectly rounded and neatly separated rectangles, each of which displays a very slightly different tone of pencil mark. In others, there are thousands of crosses that are built up, sometimes curving away from perfect rows then at other points plotted in perfect parallel lines. 

Throughout the room, Rachel Woodside’s karaoke set-up plays hits of the 80s and 90s as a revolving curtain shows then masks the checkered table and floor that make up her performance. The playlist syncs up (perhaps?) with Josephine Lee’s work, in which Smooth Radio plays softly over the video of her perfectly constructed office space. The roof is leaking, and the room eventually becomes completely flooded. The Smooth sounds of Nina Simone, George Harrison and Otis Redding are the romantic and heartfelt soundtrack of the slow apocalyptic scene projected large on the wall.

For Phyllis McGowan, there’s a fascination with armour and weaponry, but set ironically in ceramic. They speak much more to the talismanic symbology of wearing a helmet, the privacy of covering one’s face. The head gear that she has made are all rounded off shapes with a grid of triangles. In one large print, she wears her sculptures proudly on her horse. In many ways, the gesture of featuring defensive and offensive objects in materials that speak to vulnerability and fragility niftily combines narratives of strength with those of precarity, suggesting that each one can be housed within, and emerge from the other at various points.

Often degree show comes with a level of artistic openness and sharing that is rarely repeated in the professional careers of the exhibitors. Georgia Grinter presents an example of this movement, as she displays letters from a close relative, intimate in tone with references to everyday surroundings and happenings. They’re an important reference point for the drawing work on paper that Grinter includes. They’re made up of usually singularly directed lines, or scratches of biro. One depicts a garment hanging on a washing line, and their marks make edges diffuse and add to a romantic detail-free haze of longing memories. In parts, there’s a tender tracing of the handwriting, and the sense of wishing to use the person’s handwriting almost as an artistic reference, and communicate some of the warmth of what is contained within the script itself.

Using the same strategy of reducing detail to more painterly compositions of shapes and tone, Leo Wight works with black and white film photography, mainly within self-portraits. While there might be a combination of daylight and darker scenes, the uniform levels of exposure and grain suggest the sense of a nocturne even as the interior spaces he shows are filled with light from the windows. The repeated use of his own body as subject introduces the figure as a means of considering the relationship with the self as other. His back is often turned to the camera, gently insisting that while other people’s intentions might be sometimes hard to gauge, it's one’s own impulses and motivations that are the most difficult to understand with any certainty.

While Leo Wight removes colour altogether, Kieran Muir uses pinks, purples and browns to suggest bodily abjection across his unruly exhibition of knitted viscera, ceramic sausages and bronze bumps. There’s a suggestion of a rotund and hairy bellied persona that is drawn onto fabric which is collaged into a large composition that runs along one wall, showing the impossible spaces and floating of this character amongst other ambiguous flabby forms. Through the soft sculpture, and brightly coloured wools, there’s the suggestion of gore as something funny and curious. In a different tone altogether, it perhaps brings to mind the phrase 'meat joy' that Carolee Schneeman used to title her work when she slowly pulled a scroll of text from her vagina, securing her status as one of the pioneers of Body Art.

In Harriet Gould’s sculpture, there’s a use of the readymade with a full car dashboard used to play a track in which Gould describes the moment that a driving instructor is faced with his white passing student’s mixed-raced identity. Thrown into racist dismay at his own limited understanding of his student’s ethnicity, he begins a violent line of questioning, pointing to the car wheel asking about the complexion of the student’s father, laughing at the idea of Blackness, as he “demonises, bestialises and... make[s] a mockery of Black bodies and make a mockery of mine through that.” In just under three and a half minutes, the track succinctly describes the kinds of racism that are built into the most common encounters and the discomfort that presents barriers even within what might be thought of as the relatively prescribed and straightforward encounter of driving lessons.

Nearby, there’s an installation by Hayley Jane Dawson of different sculptures that refer to the idea of peeing in the great outdoors as a person with a vagina, and the kinds of tools and workarounds involved. There’s a constructed outhouse, with a video set horizontally underneath the opening in which the artist pees around different sublime landscapes. Across the pink fleece on the floor with its cast of a curved pipe, there are several bowls with printed images of the landscape on towels. There’s a very specific resistance here of the domination of the rural space and outdoor activities by cisgendered males, and a considering of the kinds of resourcefulness that is deployed by people that don’t fit this kind of identity or body-expectation.

There’s a pared-down presentation by Hamshya Rajkumar that combines collaboratively made experimental music, with a quiet and relaxed space and bootlegging. Given prime position in the space, there’s an old style double tape-deck hi-fi and two sets of headphones that play emotive and rich soundscapes. On a plinth, there is a stack of bespoke printed cassettes. A small sign encourages visitors to tape parts of the track that they would like to take away, thus in turn making the visitor a part of the process of the making of the music through editing and selection, activating the audience as makers. There’s a generosity literally in the giveaway part of the presentation, as well as the open-ended collaboration. On the floor, perfect squares of floral and geometric patterned fabric form a grid of repetition and difference as the genre of pattern changes only slightly from sample to sample.

Two artists decided to punch a wall between their spaces, as Scott Hopper’s unruly space leaks out onto Dylan Meade’s more orderly presentation of painted works. Experimenting with the limits of painting materials, Meade uses acrylic on cling film to make figurative work that quotes Modernist paint practices in the forms and strategies of reducing imagistic detail in favour of the paint itself providing texture and surface interest. Some of these delicate works are hung on metal, feeling like a suggestion of a cool and scientific hand amongst the intimacy and sex that is described in some of the images. One large work is cut into careful strips and shows an old style locomotive, and references a photograph from 1920 by Drahotin Sulla, again pointing towards the early years of the 20th century. As Meade in a text by the work describes the eroticism of the passing train, there’s a clear intention to take up some of the scientificity of Modernism, its cool-handedness and objectivity, while inserting moments of intimacy, bodiliness and unruly liquidity.

Throughout the run, in a small room, there’s an audience watching on, as Aphra Pilkington’s video considers performativity, the theatre and the power of the engaging orator. Different snippets of criticism come and go in the video, while a group of spectators wear a motley of period styles on a black background, and in a delicate chiaroscuro. In removing some descriptions of effective performance from specific passages, without context, and the abstracting of the audience as an image, there’s a timely interrogation of charisma and character as a means of convincing and winning the affection of the masses.

And perhaps this is the function in 2018 of going to see 139 distinctive solo shows on one hot afternoon, to think critically and consider one’s own taste and assumptions, and feel them reflected back and twisted around by a pleasurable barrage of talent.

Until 8 June