GSA Showcase 2021: School of Fine Art

The restrictions of the last year have prompted the School of Fine Art at Glasgow School of Art to adapt, innovate, collaborate, head outdoors

Feature by Amy Strzoda and Theodore Wilkins-Lang | 09 Jun 2021

This year’s Fine Art students, while confined to their rooms, have faced great challenges in creating work. A photographer’s tendency for spontaneous shooting, a painter’s love of observational drawing, and a sculptor’s hunt for found objects have had to be interpreted in new ways. Unsurprisingly, we have been reminded that creativity does prevail, and GSA’s class of '21 have performed remarkably, showing great resourcefulness in both subject and material.

Community has always been a focus of the Sculpture and Environmental Art programme, encouraging students to weave their practices into the local area and engage with the people around them. This year ‘community’ has taken on a new meaning: it has been essential to connect with those that keep our everyday lives running smoothly. Niall McCallum creates spaces for social exchange to thrive and collaboration to grow. His swing sculpture Tandem requires two people to participate for it to work. Giving life to previously forgotten communal spaces is a crucial part of Edie Preece’s practice (aka the secretgroundsman), attempting to awaken old football pitches and make them playable again. Preece has spent the last three years digging up and restoring grassy wastelands, freshening up the white markings and adding new goalposts, culminating in a series of photographs, but more importantly physical sites to one day visit in real life.

Unmistakably, there is an increased inclination to work outside, using the outdoors as a playground where one may have traditionally been restricted to the white walls of the studio. In Bella Geldart’s video and performance work Hit Me Harder, peculiar tennis matches take place along seemingly conventional areas by the Clyde. Ordinary settings have become places of unlimited possibilities.

Without indulging too much into the embarrassment of Zoom mishaps and home-studio accidents, it really has been tough for a programme whose students’ work is often large-scale. Consequently, physical limitations have nudged many students to look within and materialise their inner desires. Tilly P-Ms multiplayer game deer bus tour invites players to ride on a computer-generated bus journey, to look out of the window and see a man swimming alongside, and a strange creature on the back seat who asks to be left alone. Fantasy has been a vital way to keep students inspired and to allow audiences to be transported into worlds of the imagination.

Self-reflection has also been key this year, with students like HUSS using his performances to raise awareness of stigma towards mental health in the Middle East. His latest film BATTLE OF TRANQUILLITY will be shown (in person!) along with the rest of the cohort’s work at Sculpture and Environmental Art’s Alternative Degree Show.

Many works from the Painting and Printmaking graduates feature faceless figures and lonely landscapes, solo wanderers and hazy scenes. However, it’s not a feeling of isolation that is prompted, but rather one of endearment – tapping into the international psyche of the past year, reminding us of this unique, albeit often unpleasant, time of shared experience.

Our personal space has become more important than ever, so it is no surprise to find this present in the works. Sarah Olivia Johnston invites us into a blurred world of colourful non-spaces; objects that are difficult to recognise although comforting in their softness. This warmth is also present in Yeonsu Jus paintings of intimate solitude and friendly, dazed faces that melt into their domestic backdrops.

Emily Knight constantly strives to reconstruct personal memories in her dynamic and colourful paintings. They echo the fluidity of ‘recalling’, highlighting a similarity between artistic representation and the individual’s creation of their own history. Noemi Conan’s work, somewhere between self-portraiture and performance (while never settling in either), serves as a vibrant declaration of individuality from the lived experience of an Eastern-European immigrant living in post-Brexit Britain. Her visually striking canvases are loaded with a variety of cultural symbolism, which takes on new meaning through her unique and outlandish style, exuding personality and self-determination.

After being continuously ignored by the government during the pandemic, university students deserve some credit to still have found the humour in all of this. Because if you don’t laugh about it, you’ll cry – right? This combination of self-deprecation and the internet’s favourite mode of non-verbal communication is depicted in Sophie Booth’s meme paintings. We see familiar images turned into playful digs at the art world which fulfil every possible definition of meta. Josie KO’s immersive installations of fairytale scenes have a similar kitsch aesthetic, while addressing the experience of a Black British woman in a predominantly white environment. Life-size papier-mâché figures adorned with crochet gowns and Georgian-style hair sit atop grassy mounds and white horses in her installations Monument and My Ladye with the Mekle Lippis.

Presence and absence is a recurring theme for this year’s graduating Fine Art Photography students: presence of the photographic object; its materials; a visual absence of the subject of the work. Carlos Anguara Jover’s project One Less in the Middle Row addresses a particular and timely presence: that of big tech in the domestic space. He addresses the uncanny experience of digital technology’s omnipresence in daily life through an interplay of natural and technological forms, with wires wrapping fruit and devices constantly watching, listening. Like Jover, Eirini Kalogera also finds subject matter in the domestic space with her work Imprints Left by Furniture on a Floor. The work turns the traditional conception of photography as a medium of direct representation on its head, with impressions of domestic objects that themselves are not present. Lucas Orozco also examines things absent. Eight Inches of the Mackintosh refers to the iconic, now gone, Mackintosh building through a displaced object. His work interacts with the history of ‘things’ as fluid and constantly open to material degradation, challenging narratives of certainty and implied authenticity.

The Fine Art Photography programme has always emphasised technical knowledge of traditional photographic processes, the rules of which Michael Skeen upends to create his chemical drawings. Echoing the strange time we find ourselves in, his work dismantles tradition and structure while also committing to the process and craft of photographic art, a balance apparent in the dichotomy of natural brushstrokes and inorganic chemistry of his photographic paintings.

Another adherent of the materiality of photography is Andrew MacCrimmon. His filmic colour positive photographs of workers are physical and tactile in their assembly and presentation, and even better yet within the rich images themselves. His photographs are objects in and of themselves, not just representations to be endlessly reproduced through social media and the internet – refreshing in the context of our modern world and its constant inundation of ephemeral virtual media.

To complement the work on show, a variety of events are also taking place, including a discussion between the new Head of Fine Art, Rebecca Fortnum, and artists Susan Pui San Lok, Jenkin Van Zyl, Emma Talbot and three of the year’s graduates.

The arts have had to adapt at rapid speed this past year, but not to fear, as GSA’s latest offspring of fine artists have proved that they’re more than equipped to take on the big bad art world.