A Kaleidoscopic Smattering: Gray's Degree Show 2018

The Aberdeen cohort display, as always, a different take on the degree show fare and make a trip to the edge of Aberdeen more than worth it

Article by Donald Butler | 20 Jun 2018

Generous exhibition spaces at this year's Gray’s School of Art degree show allow for a collection of confident solo presentations from the 2018 graduating cohort. A kaleidoscopic smattering of boldly coloured spaces of blue, pink and yellow cluster a multitude of students working in sculpture this year, punctuated with quietly poetic works in photography and video. Throughout there are moments of significant thematic engagement, and real depth of technical and formal understanding displayed.

Works have been grouped together in two specific disciplines this year, with the Contemporary Art Practice class taking main control of the ground floor. Karolina Bachanek’s multi-media installation can be heard before it is seen, a soundtrack of darkly hypnotic electronic music filtering out into the hallway – quite literally a product, an album and printed t-shirts are available to purchase, part of Bachanek’s music project/pseudonym Zloto. Meaning gold in Polish, her works here are a riff on the biblical tale of The Gold Calf, in which the Israelites hastily produced a golden idol from melted jewellery and danced in wicked abandon upon the figure’s erection. Here the calf is replaced with the various trappings of popular culture, forming in two corners of the rooms altar-like displays. A particularly strong element is an embroidered tiger on gold velvet, bunched amongst melting Catholic iconography,  a hooded figure writhing topless in glitchy digital space to the undulating bass of Bachanek’s productions on screens below.

Elsbeth Morrison presents the darkest work in the show, literally and figuratively. Her film Confronting the Corporeal is projected in a blackened claustrophobic space on a screen nearly the same size as the wall. Borrowing heavily from horror film imagery, the film variously follows a female character who wears a truly disturbing mask interspersed with extreme close-ups of blood-like fluid oozing over undulating fleshy material. Accompanied by an effectively rising soundtrack of drums and organs alongside that good-old trope of horror, well-placed silence, the film is an effective exploration of the realities of and rituals of death. Ethereal bodies floating down rivers shot in black and white create tranquil moments of resonance, effectively transitioning to the more macabre shots of states of decay.

On a more light hearted note, Phoebe Banks and Sandy Scott both use humour as a means of critiquing the arts environment they now find themselves thrust upon. Banks has created a family of polystyrene white forms on wheels she invites viewers to play with. Over two videos she has recorded herself going on strolls to the beach, watching rugby in her living room, waiting for laundry to finish and lying around in an empty gallery space with these same forms. It’s a simple but effective comedy on an artist's relationship to their work.

Nearby, Scott has curated an archive of material from lesser-known Scottish land artist Joseph Kerr including printed ephemera, an original sketchbook and various tools retrieved from his studio. Accompanied by a photo-essay of the artist’s oeuvre, the presentation is divided in two by a convincingly reproduced Lanarkshire drystone dyke.

It’s easy to be fooled by this archive of objects, in particular by a printed poster of a supposed exhibition of Kerr’s work at the Third Eye Centre. After inspecting the aforementioned stone dyke expertly formed in fibreglass, I ask the artist of its relevance to be told the whole show is in fact a fictive narrative. Through a smirk the artist tells of how one collector confidently relayed his experience of meeting faux artist Joseph Kerr in the past.

Abby Quick has decided to side-step the theatrics of works around her space, presenting instead three beautifully presented photobooks on a poetically minimal cast concrete support that reflects the landscapes documented within. Titled Portraits of Caithness and Sutherland, Sinking Valley and Notes from the Balkans she is one of the only students to present work in photography this year. Each series shares a familiar approach to presenting geographies in intimate detail, often punctuated by shots of bare male chests or limbs in shallow focus lending a sleepy sensuality to the scapes placed around them. It is an expertly deployed moment of stillness.

Similarly creating work on her relationship to geography, Emma Laing lovingly presents a collection of black and white prints of details of trees, land formations, texts and portraits that form a collective narrative on her family's roots in the area surrounding Ullapool – one piece pocking out of a glass sheet reads 'My heart belongs in the Highlands.' Framed etchings of the backs of photographs from her family's collection are a poignant tribute to printed matter.

Upstairs there is a group of painters confidently displaying a formalist approach to their chosen medium that is a real high point. Alluding to sensory qualities far beyond the pictorial, Hannah Stirling combines colourful thick swirls and forms of paint atop muted flat monochromes. 

Chanel No. 7 is translated as a green form pushing onto the panel; Squeaky Shoe a bright yellow sponge-like texture sitting on raw MDF. Marcus Murison transfers digital drawing into the painted realm, shifting between focused blocks of pastel greens, pinks and blues depicting effects from Photoshop. These are broken up by squares of sprayed marks that reveal enthusiastic impulse, creating framed moments of abandon that sing in his large-scale compositions.

Ceramic twists of ropes and glazed amorphous chunks rest peacefully on the canvases of Hannah Gibson’s fluid paintings, seas of pale peach and muted green that spill beautifully into each other. Rope twists and bundles of marks similarly occupy these pictorial renderings of things seemingly coming undone in fits of contained energy. A collection of controlled works in graphite that sit in the centre of her space complement the works well, and are an excellent exploration of mark-making.

There are many riotous moments throughout this year's show, with reflective floors and rooms illuminated in neon reds and blues. Text on seemingly melting plastic that speak of the artist's anxiety of existing in a digital age resonate, yet it is the confidently subtle presentations that stand out, and make the journey to the outer edge of Aberdeen worth it.

Gray’s School of Art Degree Show, Robert Gordon University, runs 17-24 Jun, free entry https://www3.rgu.ac.uk/areas-of-study/subjects/art-and-design/degree-show/gray-s-degree-show