GSA Master of Fine Art 2014 Degree Show Highlights

looking up at the skylights in the factory
inside the factory near white painted bricks and metal vents

This year’s MFA from Glasgow School of Art was a very strong showing of many mature and confident works that, after several years of mixed MFA degree shows, really lived up to the challenge of the space. The Glue Factory presents artists with the opposite of a white cube space, it is an old converted factory that retains a life, and atmosphere, of itself, with its dark cavernous rooms downstairs , nook and crannies, remnants of industrial machinery, and fascinating combinations of materials wherever you look as you walk into the brighter spaces on the upper floor. So a pretty distracting environment for artists to work with.

The thematic content and character of the artworks by the students was totally different in this show, the video works downstairs especially unified in much more visual and dreamy, non human focus, interacting with the heavy, cold feeling of the spaces. Selma Hreggviðsdóttir’s ‘Shrine’ room with nine minute video, near the entrance to the show, encapsulated this mood. The square format, projected roughly a few metres wide, presented a telescopic looking glass like composition with gradually moving shots and subtle overlaps of what looked like landscape and rocks close-ups. Sometimes the movement would be horizontal, and other times would switch to vertical, giving an automated or alien impression of the earth from above. The ambient music worked very well, creating a slow motion soundscape.

Selma Hreggviðsdóttir, ‘Shrine’
(Copyright the artist)
Selma Hreggviðsdóttir, ‘Shrine’
(Copyright the artist)

Into the space, more video works presented worlds without people, with a sense of quiet randomness. Some visitors left remarking on the lack of interest in portraits this year, maybe they came to the wrong show! This quiet was palpable, a kind of lurking feeling behind the works, as if the building was communicating through them. Emily McFarland’s three videos created larger spaces to look into -her ‘Zabriskie Point Reversed.MOV’ (6 mins) used slow motion, reversing an explosion of stuff into a bright blue happy sky. There again a mood non commercial, a destruction of the world of things.

Into further darker rooms, Katrina Valle’s ‘Mezzanine’ (HD video, 19 mins) had apparently abstracted flames turning quickly in the darkness, so that the screen itself would be no longer separate from the space. As you peer closer, the image unravels from fragmented shapes into what appears to be candles moving round a glass. Next to this room, the first of a few strong works by Lauren Wells, ‘Bouncing Light’ (digital video, 3.45 mins) turned a tunnel like area on its side, subverting the horizon with shaky filming and night like spaces. Continuing the dreamy trip through the darkness, I moved into the next space, a contained installation by Ying Cui, ‘As Far as I Heard’, a neon red glowing room with videos, sound, acrylic, plastics and tracing papers. All these materials and film sequences were able to overlap, creating a complicated and unclear feeling, simulating multi layered experiences and thoughts. The projected film through the shapes created an almost abstract expressionist piece.

I inched carefully forward to the next exhibits, two works by Lauren Wells, guided by a glimmer of light from upstairs. Although her text piece, with reliance on the screen wasn’t quite my thing, her next video ‘Dream’ (5.29 mins – “It’s all new. It’s all part of her past” reads the title card), for which you had to crouch down to see it, was very appealing. Hazily captured waves breaking, and breaking, on an unknown shore at night, a lighthouse light blinking far out on the next headland through the low blue light.

Lauren Wells, ‘Dream’, Digital Video Still
(Copyright the artist)
Lauren Wells, ‘Bouncing Light’, Digital Video Still
(Copyright the artist)

Upstairs and into the light, Kirsty Palmer’s new work delightfully followed in the footsteps of her undergraduate degree show, with an array of sensitively crafted and placed temporary pieces, plus video and two dimensional work, making up a fascinating installation titled ‘Points Between’. The low grounded-ness of the works, some smaller and curiously positioned to draw you in closer, was interesting, such as the small film (‘bloom for a bushfire’, digitally edited super 8mm film, 30 mins) projected next to the stairway. Here subtly shifting and changing close up views of plant matter, densely jungle like but muted, set up a background mood for the still works in the brighter room adjacent. The standing plaster pieces, some looking very recently made as if they may just melt, flow, crumble or subside right in front of you, look at first quite minimal or calm. As you observe these however you become aware of the myriad of textures, from those of the digital print transfers worked in while wet to the scooped plaster marks of the ‘rescued ring’ and the bubbling crustaceous ‘seed pod’. The tonality and especially the organic presence of this body of work again intertwined poignantly with the architecture of the Glue Factory.

Copyright the artist, Kirsty Palmer, ‘Seed Pod’ 2014
(Copyright the artist)
Copyright the artist, Kirsty Palmer, ‘For a Bushfire’ 2014
(Copyright the artist)
Copyright the artist, Kirsty Palmer, ‘Points Between’ 2014
(Copyright the artist)

Also on the top floor was a quirky, outsider type film which was quite original and fun, ‘Bootcut Renaissance’ (HD video, 5.10 mins) by Dominic Watson. It should be pretty bad, using a dancing sculpted manly figure of clay or paper mache and wild west set, with music by Lana Del Rey – ‘Blue Jeans’ – but funnily sets off the tongue in cheek themes with the props including very cheap shoes and shirt that toys with the viewer, and is reminiscent of some Hollywood road movie and love story gone wrong. Overall the MFA this year was a really strong exhibition showing quite a few interesting artists with a refreshing mindset and take on contemporary art. They will be good to go find again in future, perhaps in more dark and strange exhibition spaces.

Hovering on above Caithness (Northern Scotland – Orkney)

arctic skuas, guillemots and black backs,
probing – swaying –
with low and high motion

marks of ancient vegetation on wet stone, green moss and seaweedmetal rusted machine parts piled upshort dark grass, sun hitting wild bird eggs, crackedfrom metal white painted beams, to red curved cliffs behindmarks, calligraphic, rock signs perhaps, ochre with dark blue black shapesfigure shadow below, inside the texture of rock shards, beyond bright tarmachillscape, hill in cloud maybe, into cloud spacetransparent water, sun reflecting or the moon with a ladder reaching down

retrieving coordinates –
rangag, ruard
glas mheall liath, coir a’ghiubhsachain
skaill, point of hellia

splitting through eastern sutherland
hovering above caithness,
plunging into clear green depths shining,
from waters to coconut fragrance melting yellows,
beyond into wide moors – back then to orcadia

Pier Arts Centre ‘Living Colour’ Exhibition, Stromness

Probably one of Scotland’s best art galleries although far from the cities in the beautiful Orkney Mainland, the artwork at The Pier Arts Centre in Stromness (which has a connection to the Tate) is often nicely presented and curated. And so I wasn’t disappointed by their recent exhibition ‘Living Colour’ which a friend had recommended to me. This was a tremendously exciting show, in a way a retrospective documenting, and also repositioning, animation and especially hand painted artwork onto film (rather than filming with a camera) as truly powerful artistic statements that were ahead of their time.

Monochrome drawing of fishing boats near the pier in Stromness Harbour, Orkney, with the town on the hill behind and the mountains of Hoy under cloud in the distance
5 minute sketch with marker of Stromness harbour and the Viking Monarch

Digital photo of the Pier Arts Centre on the shore near the pier, with the rear of building and modern extension with glass, town of Stromness behind
The Pier Arts Centre, photo John Ireland (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Highlights of the show began right away with Oskar Fischinger’s ‘Radio Dynamics’, a transcendental and fast paced trip of a film with a an experimental range of shapes and colours to lose yourself in. This piece pushes the visual boundaries, taking abstract expressionism into moving image in a forward pulling relentless exploration that is mesmerising. Seeing its mature combinations, reminiscent of that of the American based painters Hans Hoffman, Josef Albers and Mark Rothko, questions our understanding of abstraction at that time.

Part of the McLaren 2014 programme, the next strong piece was by the pioneering Scottish filmmaker himself, Norman McLaren, from 1949 – ‘Begone Dull Care’ (see the 7min 52s video below, courtesy of The National Film Board of Canada). Watch the visuals of this frameless film flow with the jazzy music and especially piano by the Oscar Peterson Trio. The splashy and textured mark-making slides from very simple and funny-quirky to more heavy, built up and layered surfaces, but mainly has a delightful drawing feel, and one which is so in tune with the processes as well as the free sounds of the instruments.

Begone Dull Care by Evelyn Lambart& by Norman McLaren, National Film Board of Canada

Moving towards the end of the show’s chronology, more recent work included a speedy piece by self taught filmmaker Ian Helliwell called ‘Get Set’ – here the artist made the excellent soundtrack with a toy organ. It was great to see that the seminal ‘Dresden Dynamo’ (16mm film, made 1974, 5 mins, colour, 4:3) by Lis Rhodes was on display too.

I had enjoyed seeing this very electronic feeling piece in the Tramway art gallery in Glasgow, through the LUX Collection, a year or so ago, and although on a smaller screen, the cadmium red and cereleum-cobalt blue linear minimalism was again highly striking. The pureness of the abstraction seen here in her earlier work hits the mark, thematically totally non verbal or language orientated, stemming from the method of sound creation that the projector bulb would interpret the sound of the images…

“It was perhaps the question of sound – the uncertainty of any synchronicity between what was seen and what was said that began an investigation into the relationship of sound to image. Dresden Dynamo is a film that I made in 1972 without a camera – in which the image is exactly the sound track – the sound track the image. A film document.” – Lis Rhodes

Best wishes to Glasgow School of Art after the recent fire in the Mackintosh


Hope the school and the students, especially those in their final fourth year who were busy working on their degree shows and so were most affected by the fire in the Mackintosh building, can recover their creative momentum once more and find new working space. Ashame for them and to see the damage to the various fabulous studios where I was fortunate enough to work during my four years there.