SCA Graduate Show Review

Just want to note down some impressions of the SCA graduate show, while it’s still fresh in my mind. Of course, it should be noted that I’m a sculptor who works in fairly “solid” materials, and have been trained is a relatively formalist manner, or at least have been trained to work from the premise that a piece must succeed on composition alone, before anything else is taken into account.

John Gruber over at Daring Fireball linked to this piece by Derek Sivers the other day. In short – ideas are cheap and easy, implementation is hard. One of the post-modernist scourges that has been such a malady on the art world, has been the veneration of the idea, at the expense of the craftsmanship of the artefact. Walking through the SCA graduate exhibition, I’m struck at how much idea and concept seems emphasised within the work, and how few of the pieces (especially in sculpture) are the sorts of aesthetically pleasing things you’d want to live amongst.

As an art student, you basically have nothing to say, that hasn’t been said before, and by someone better at it than you – that’s just the nature of the world, we all live in the shadow of the great masters of art history who had the advantage of intensive arts training from childhood. As an art school graduate, you’re coming out into the same culture as people who’ve spent entire careers doing exactly what you’re attempting to do. There were a number of pieces from either painting or printmedia that looked like parodies of advertising. When I can go onto Cracked or 4Chan and see thousands of these sorts of things done every day, is it really something that will be a satisfying use of time in an academic environment? Yes advertising is two-faced and shallow, commercial radio is formulaic, we all know that, AND?

A lot of the work seems to be quite “yelly” – the artists are yelling, something, what it is, well that’s open to interpretation – but yet again, we come to this problem of “meaning” in art. While a picture can paint a thousand words, the artist can’t control what those words say. This is the problem that crops up when artists try to send a “message” with their work – art is a very low bandwidth, inefficient communication device. If you want to talk about human rights, for example, you can achieve a lot more writing a piece of prose, or shooting a documentary, than you can with a painting or a sculpture. Indeed, the more serious the issue, the stronger the argument becomes that it’s actually unethical or amoral to choose a poorer communicator as your tool of expression.

By the way, none of these criticisms apply to the Jewellery  or Glass departments – their work was exquisite – beautifully made, aesthetically pleasing objects.

Painting was a mixed bag – there was some nice work – and by and large the nicest pieces were the ones that tried to be the least “experimental”, the ones that were happy to simply be, in which I didn’t feel the artist bludgeoning me with some agenda. I’ll paraphrase Penn Jilette on Kevin Smith’s radio show:

“A poor artist tells you what they want you to think. A great artist makes you think what they want you to think, and makes you believe it’s your own idea.”

Leaving aside the work, I want to talk about the exhibition itself, how it was set out, and what was good and bad. The major good point was the ready availability of contact cards for the students. This is SCA doing what it should be doing – promoting the students first and foremost, and making it as easy as possible for them to be put in contact with potential clients / commissions. At NAS we seem to have a culture within the gallery that doesn’t approve of that, probably as a way of protecting their 30% commission on student work sales, and probably because they think it’s not in keeping with the style they want to present.

So that’s the good thing. The bad? Oh, the bad…

Assessments being held when the exhibition is open to the public. What. The. Fuck. Who in their right mind thought it was a good idea to have an exhibition open to the public, in which rooms were closed , or you might be asked to leave because the students were being marked? Why hasn’t that been done and finished already, or why isn’t it being done outside of exhibition hours?

Incomplete works. I walked into some display spaces, and students were still setting things up. Huh?

Both these were solved by the fact that the Postgrad exhibition isn’t until December 7th so I’m assuming these were Honours students. which leads me to…

Signage, or the lack of it. SCA is a warren of small rooms and buildings and signage is sparse. There were signs pointing to buildings, but not indicating what those buildings were exhibiting. I walked past the sculpture rooms 2 or 3 times, because there was no sign outside actually telling me that there was work to be seen inside. What compounds this is that there’s no attempt to block off areas that aren’t open to the general public, so you don’t know if an unmarked room is an unmarked display space, or a student kitchenette area.

So, to sum up…

I’m sure there’s a good exhibition of good work within what’s there. I saw an amazing pair of curved plywood pieces in the middle of a space displaying work by a painting student, and some cool bamboo constructions in the sculpture studio.  Jewellery and Glass, for which SCA has a deservedly high reputation, excelled.

Overall, what I didn’t feel however, was that I was looking at the next group of professional artists. I didn’t see a body of work that spoke of selling pieces to people, of creating objects that deserve serious gallery space. Maybe, that’s something SCA reserves for Honours and Masters, but I can’t help but think that after 3 years of academia, you should be able to produce things that stand toe to toe with the rest of art history. What I suspect, again taking my own biases into account, is that much of the SCA culture is based around pushing students to think about their concepts and ideas, not about the physical manifestations of those ideas.