I chanced to be in Newcastle for Northumbria University’s Visual Arts degree show in June. This was no gallery exhibition, and much the better for it. The exhibits were on display all over the campus amongst the university’s scattered buildings. The poster piece, Dylan Shields’ St Sebastian fashioned out of cardboard, ministered to by a blue-robed Madonna figure with squaw-like features, occupied a prominent in the foyer of the main building. Another piece by Shields, the head of John the Baptist, was placed against the side-wall of a squash court, red duct tape running disconcertingly down the wall from the severed neck. This too was made from brown cardboard; Shield’s shows ingenuity in constructing interesting images from such simple material. Both exhibits were interesting and arresting variations on well-known set-pieces of Christian iconography. Also in the squash court, Lexie Curran hung a bucket from the ceiling, water dripping from it onto salt chunks cradled in a mattress on the wooden floor. In the catalogue she quotes Donne – "no man is an island" – in support of her fascination with isolation and transience. Her clever piece inexplicably but effectively illustrates both states. Replastered patches on the walls of the squash court underlined her themes. Many other pieces were displayed in the spare angular spaces of the mildly dilapidated buildings of the university. On a bright day with the sun shining through the windows, the setting enhanced their impact.
Several pieces, particularly the photographs, were local in content, which gave the show a rootedness. Jemma Gibson showed us miners’ cottages and Gavin Moore an eerily lit night-time view of a footbridge in Newcastle with the pretentious title ‘Represented Memories’. Two interesting bits of street photography by Richard Fish and Richard Hook, respectively of a man in a motorised chair and an elderly woman pushing a shopping trolley, also looked local. Christopher Cowling, who professes an interest in the decline of industry in the North East and what has been left behind, presents a painting in oil that may represent the rusted side of a ship (or may not), which captures the rhythm and decay of the great industry that dominated the region for over a century.
There was a fine portrait photograph by Jonathan Paine of someone whom we must assume to be a relative: as with several good pieces, this one is disappointingly, unnecessarily and unhelpfully labelled ‘Untitled”. Pangani Svotwa’s richly coloured photograph of a wood stove was technically accomplished. William Lowrey’s photograph ‘Beyond the Hyper-real’, Chloe Mercer’s ‘How do I phrase this without getting into trouble?’ Alistair Ramsay’s photograph of shadows on a wall and Sandra Rutter’s mirror photo, both again sadly ‘Untitled’, all showed intelligent and witty conception.
The international element was supplied by two Chinese artists, Mabel Chan and Weijia Ou. Chan captures the spirit of Chinese painting in a modern way in her abstract designs in wash ink. Wejia Ou uses a photographic collage technique to remark upon, maybe to satirise, the Chinese preoccupation with books and learning.
Overall the span of work shown was impressive, with a number of young artists experimenting in a variety of ways from the minimalism of Ben Haigh (‘Lever’), the pop art-ish agitprop of Kate Hardwick (setting a scene from Afghanistan outside a suburban dining room window) to the clever videos of Kimberley Gaiger (‘Unitled’, again) and Louise Todd (the disturbing ‘The Search’).
If I had to pick out two themes they would be women and wit. Without being scientific, i.e. without counting, I would guess that women showing outnumbered men by three to one overall and many of the women produced very interesting pieces. At university level women seem to be setting the pace in a way that they are still not in the wider market place. And wit was everywhere. One would expect a degree show to be lively, and this was indeed so. One would also expect applied learning, and this again was so. I have mentioned Alexandra Curran quoting Donne, but there were references to Shakespeare (of course, but well-chosen) Sartre, Georges Perec and several others. But the artists on show were not just lively and learned, but accessible and clever, Shields and Curran being good examples, but not the only ones. These characteristics stood out particularly against the tired predictability of the work by the established American artist Robert Breer which was on display in the Baltic Centre in Newcastle at the same time. I hope that the young women (and men) of Northumbria University go on to find a market for their bright talents in these straitened times.