It's that time of year again, where we all get the chance to see the work of the current crop of graduates from arts schools across the country and to seek out the next generation of talent. This is one of my favourite times of the year, jumping from train to train, travelling to visit BA and MA shows in cities across the country – and I always have a special interest in what Sheffield Institute of Arts has to offer. As an alumni of the art school, every time I visit the degree show it brings back memories of the feverish planning, mounting stress and sheer elation that surrounds the end-of-year show. So what does the 2019 iteration have to offer?
As always, there is a wide variety of work on show – from the traditional approaches of painting and sculpture all the way to more conceptual experiments, including an intimate performance within a sound-dampened cube. The exhibition is sprawling, clinging to every part of the gallery space. The works climb up the walls and spill out onto the floor. In some cases it becomes difficult to differentiate between where one work ends and another begins. This curatorial approach is refreshing, breaking free from the conventional booth-style layout that has become increasingly synonymous with degree shows.
It is always difficult to try and select highlights amongst such a huge presentation of work, however a good method is to try and see which works still stick in the mind a couple of days after visiting the show. One series that lived up to this test was Paulina Frize's triptych of paintings. The paintings confront you as you enter the main gallery space, presenting themselves in a simple yet confident manner. Using the approach of an 'alchemist’, Frize combines techniques of spreading, pouring and casting to pull away from the traditions of painting, to create surface and texture that relates more to the earth than it does to any form of pictorial representation. It is refreshing to see an artist truly interested in the progression of such a traditional art form, and on such a large scale.
At the other end of the spectrum sits the work of Elliot Clarke. Both enchanting and slightly awkward, Clarke’s practice plays with poetic language, social interaction and our sensorial understanding of our surroundings. For the degree show, Clarke has constructed a sound-proofed cube in which he takes the participant through a series of exercises aimed at helping them to understand singular sensorial experiences, such as heightened smell or hearing. He does this by infusing the space with a specifically selected fragrance and presenting the participant with a blindfold to heighten their ability to pick up nuanced sounds and to concentrate on listening to his directions. The work feels like a test or a leap into unknown territory, and that’s what the degree show should be in many ways. It’s a chance to understand how a work of art might exist in the public sphere, looking at the elements that may work whilst understanding the fallibility of any true form of experiment.
The degree show is varied, like any exhibition. There are graduates who understand it as their last exhibition following their period of study, alongside others who are already making plans for their next. That’s the unique nature of the degree show, and something that sets it apart from anything else of its kind. For the artists who are looking to the future, this is where the real work begins…
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- David McLeavy
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