Psychedelic Safari: Edinburgh College of Art Degree Show 2013

On our tireless quest for emerging talent we journey to the Central Belt degree shows and scan the plain for infinite marvelous spectacles. Ok, maybe not tireless...

Feature by Emma Ewan | 10 Jun 2013

Leaving the Edinburgh College of Art after hours of eclectic visual onslaught, with aching feet and weary eyes, it’s a little difficult to process what just happened. Going to a degree show can be a bit like going on psychedelic safari through the middle of a multiway shoot-out, so in a sprawl of works competing for the public’s applause perhaps it boils down to what is memorable.

This year’s graduating students exhibit a newfound boldness in their work. Where last year’s show abounded with timid mark-making, this year’s crowd display restlessness. Landscape painting, celebrity portraiture and vulgar vagina art aside (which unfortunately still rears its ugly head year upon year), it is quickly apparent that at the core of this show is an eagerness to toy with the boundaries of humour, play and human interaction.

Perhaps the tone was set when, in the first room, I pulled back a curtain to find a bundle of children and adults frolicking shamelessly in showers of rainbow confetti amid dangling seaweed strips, nauseatingly effervescent projections of fish and the semi-hallucinatory tunes of the tropical 80s. This is the space of Frances Hetherington, whose work also includes a seascape of rhinestone jellyfish and a video unveiling a castellated fish tank feature to the tune of Marvin Gaye's Let’s Get it On.

Next door, Sally Sears-Black’s performance consists of four disturbingly detached living human arms that manifest from opposing walls in a white, dead-end corridor. Despite sounding faintly morbid, the piece is comical in an absurd way that is reminiscent of Surrealist fashion photography. One hand holds a notebook, turning pages; another holds a catalogue aloft as if reading from it without eyes; one fumbles with pens, while the final hand probingly ponders an orange. As the audience projects human traits on to these disembodied limbs they attract interaction and empathy.

Sarah Boulton delights with her confident renouncing of that old bitter adage that you could stick a piece of A4 paper on the wall and get through art school. Choosing the humble yet direct text-on-paper medium, her piece A Little Faith is a bewildering mix of razor-sharp whimsies and narrative charm. Most captivating is the uncertainty as to whether the occurrences recollected really occurred or are merely fanciful notions that never manifested. While her straightforward writing style performs naivety with bravado, the works display relentless curiosity with underlying ingenuity.

In her exploration of space and everyday experience, Catherine Smith’s objects have emerged from her drawings to become bright and knobbly prop-like structures that, when combined, feel a bit like a playground gone wrong - failing health and safety checks for spiky bits and swallow-ables. Her encouragement to ‘touch the artworks’ satisfies many an inquisitive visitor but there is an uneasy feeling that the objects are, in some way, missing their human counterpart and that at some stage they should all come back to life.

João Abbott-Gribben’s room of optical illusions is unnervingly calm and alluring. An eerie green light is shed from a series of backlit images of unnaturally marbled, impossible shapes, casting a semi-sacred glow. Mounted in weighty gold frames, they offer a clash of classical antiquity and modern technology that encourages the viewer to consider the boundaries of the real and the perceived.

For those traditionalists craving evidence of the ‘technical skill’ coming out of Edinburgh in 2013, there’s plenty of that too. There’s no denying that ECA can foster a talented draughtsperson; the photo-realist botanical works by Rachel McKean couldn’t be further from the mad vigour of the works on the floors below. Her calm and almost inconceivably controlled recreations of nature offer a welcome respite.