There always appears to be a latent feeling of class struggle in Degree shows held in Newcastle. That is, a class struggle confined to the regimented field of artistic production and whose materialisation is expressed in spatial terms. Thus, in Northumbria University a selected few are invited to display their work in the recently opened Gallery North on the ground floor of the Squires building (in addition to their exhibits on the upper floor with their fellow comrades). At Newcastle University, one has the impression that you might consider yourself better looked after if your work is located in the exhibition space of the ancient and respectable Hatton Gallery, alongside the remnants of Kurt Schwitters immovable Merzbarn, than in the sinuous corridors of the adjacent post-war concrete building. Well it is an art school, and the works which are shown to the public, the result of three or four years of hard working aesthetic immersion and professional development (that’s very important: to develop “critical awareness of self and external factors; interpersonal and social skills; resourcefulness; creative problem-solving, divergent thinking; decision making; oral and written communication skills self motivation and management; organisation and planning; and IT skills, particularly using creative software” to quote the University’s website: a considerable stretch from Ad Reinhardt!) have been assessed and it is not immoral that the judges convey some of their verdict through land distribution. Of course, this is but an underlying flavour of the shows where the art works are paired on curatorial concerns. An effort is made in particular in trying to mix the different mediums and avoid a segregation of practices.
The first room to visit, had you decided to start with the main gallery space and to proceed anticlockwise (psychologically bypassing the till at the entrance hall), indulged the visitor in a lush bath of warm colours that promised a satisfaction based on the combination of instant carnal satisfaction and delayed intellectual appreciation. Exactly my motto then, which, I can’t help to notice from my beach chair as I write this short survey, might be seen as a positive hybrid in Kant’s operations of reflective aesthetic judgement, located between immediate bodily pleasure and the secondary teleogical conceptualisation of empirical intuitions (ed. is that right?). Adam Shield’s painting had multicoloured interiors and landscapes of intertwining geometrical and organic planes surrounding human silhouettes. These were similarly floating in suspension between recognisable data, the features of the face here and the outline of the skirt there, and a leaning towards abstraction, a ghostly shadow here and a face sculpted as a colour block there. The paintings were presented directly on the ground, resting on the walls, somehow duplicating the paintings’ prolific exploration of interstitial spatiality. An equally suspended quality emerged from the photographic works of Victoria Moore which constituted the pendant to these pictorial propositions. At first glance, on relatively small scaled photographs arranged in series on the walls, an array of organic shapes without seemingly any precise identification. A world of sombre and hot textures that reminded one of some exotic jungle where close ups of a seductive and dangerous flora had been taken. However, after some attentive scrutiny, distinctive shapes emerge from the dark backgrounds, limbs and breasts, frontal belly and foreshortened legs, the illuminated surfaces of painted skin. Moore uses her own body as a canvas, and stages its visibility through the dramatic focus of the lenses. Here too the images attract through a dense inscrutable perceptual field, whose specific components become visible as if in a sunk relief, balancing their potential interpretation in an ever suspended judgement.
Mind you, if you had been willing to pass the gallery shop and proceed clockwise, a more minimalist flavour would have greeted your entrance. Paul Diamond had a range of metallic, balsa and plywood structures dispersed across the room. His architectural approach was echoed by the photographic work of Kate Nasmyth, whose shots of architectural interiors are punctuated by the fragmentary presence of (supposedly) the artist within the black and white geometrical layout. At the rear of the gallery, a U-turn shaped promenade, in the large prestigious bottom room, formal concerns were also winning the day. Andrew Barker had a rather large scale and compelling work based on stretched canvases arranged on metallic frames. Loose paint had been applied to canvases which served as vectors to materialise the ‘immaterial tensions’ of our surrounding environment. This was paralleled by Michelle Swann’s series of over the top abstract paintings composed through extremely vivid tones and brushworks, hanging or resting on the walls, arranged on the floor, rectangular or cut as singular objects. A diptych in an altar like shape made of golden orange and burgundy hues governed the room. Particularly worthy of notice were also the paintings of Robin Livsey. These consisted in figurative compositions of surrealist quality drawing on collage compositional techniques: a young girl bends over a bucket seeking inspiration, a bold man with a white moustache in a bathing suite enjoys the sun his arms outstretched in the sand while his legs monstrously merge with his torso, while in a canvas cut in the shape of two circles merging through a canal connecting the bottom to the top of each circle a massive bird seizes the nose of a pain struck squinting woman. The spectacles form of the latter canvas combined with the sunbathing beach creature seemed to stress a contemporary pictorial pathway leading not out of the discarded Albertian window plane, but rather over it as it invests into some of its continued existence in our present experience of the world to project its own humorous vision and awareness of life’s deceptions:
Robin Livsey – Woman, oil on aluminium, 2011
Now leaving the main gallery space and following the signs “exhibition continues”, the visitor was led towards a range of sculptural works. There were other media it must be said, such as videos in the lecture room (they didn’t work while I was there), or a neat drawing installation by Emily Forrest whose multiple tiny birds arranged in various circles, boards and lines evoked the realm of Victorian classification in a white transitory corridor. But an overall impression was the profusion of rather large sculptural installations. Lauren Parkin had a room space covered with 5000 hand cut triangles made of cardboard and accompanied by an explanatory text pointing out the mathematical leanings of the work. Rebecca Huggan repeatedly produced more or less deformed moulds of her head in plaster.
The all white installation comprised plinths of various sizes on which stood the perforated heads. The ancient Roman celebratory practice came diverted into a contemporary mass-production where the asperities of fragmented sculpture referred to a world or a psyche gone astray. Next to this pristine yet violent work, a very large clothe of a grey sand colour was suspended from the ceiling, folding itself triangularly at decreasing heights as it spread towards the opposing wall (Victoria Martin). A fragrance of the not too distant northern sea filled the space. Another olfactory installation was arranged by Stephanie Beaulieu in a separate room. There, one had to bend oneself to discover the source of such powerful smells, as a lower ceiling had been constructed out of dried tea bags diffusing luxurious odours as well as tones. This somehow baroque construction was echoed in the work of Helen Russel-Hughes, where a meticulous tainted linen arranged as a step construction on the wall and tiny basins received the results of colour explorations made of red cabbage, beetroot and yellow onion skin, in a analogous vision of a Moroccan textile market. Nearby, the exploration of material was furthered by the presence of two shiny shoes in a round basin filled with treacle. A dress was also displayed, its edges covered with treacle on the ground. It was a compelling end-result to a performance by Ilona Braun projected in a video recording, where one could see the artist wearing the dress and the shiny shoes fighting to keep her balance within the sticky dark basin. Her catalogue entry thus read: “When the human body faces adversity you have to choose; to control the adversity or let the adversity control you. The struggle seems endless, isolated and suspended in time”. A wise saying that would honour the writings of a venerable Asian philosopher or a contemporary fantasy writer, and that, beside to artists excitedly launching their artistic careers, could equally be put to art schools academics pondering the meaning of art education in these times of expediency gone sour.