RA Magazine Summer 2013
Issue Number: 119
RA Schools Show
There is a special energy in the RA Schools this year, with a dynamic blend of ideas and media that has caught the eye of the art world. Ben Luke talks to the class of 2013 on the eve of their final show.
It’s a momentous time for third-year RA Schools students. Their final show – traditionally the culmination of years of study before they go into the world as artists – is around the corner. It’s also a moment of excitement because several of these students are showing in galleries in the UK and internationally even before they leave.
In the spring alone, some have had significant exhibitions, among them Eddie Peake at White Cube in London and the Focal Point gallery in Southend; Prem Sahib at Lorcan O’Neill in Rome; Adham Faramawy in a New York group show; Charlie Billingham in ‘New Order: British Art Today’ at the Saatchi Gallery; Steven Forge at London’s Anarch Gallery, and Mary Ramsden at Pilar Corrias’s booth at the Frieze Art Fair in New York.
The class of 2013 in the RA Schools life room. From left back row: Sarah Shoughi, Marie von Heyl, Nancy Milner, Michael O’Reilly, Tom Owen, James Robertson, Prem Sahib, Esther Yuan, Stephen Forge; Front row Adham Faramawy, Amy Woodward, Bradley Grievson (in frame), Mary Ramsden, Joe Frazer, Tim Pratt, Charlie Billingham, Eddie Peake (in frame). Photograph by Harry Borden.
What lies behind this unprecedented level of success? The RA Schools has always been unique, both in being a three-year course, rather than the usual two-year Fine Art postgraduate programme, and also in remaining free of charge. ‘We’ve been able to be privileged – not in terms of the backgrounds of people, but in the traditional sense of elite – to provide the quality for students that nowhere else can,’ says Vanessa Jackson, who has been a senior tutor at the school for the past 15 years.
However, Jackson insists that the origins of the Schools’ current success lie in the reforms led by Brendan Neiland, the Schools’ Keeper between 1998 and 2004. ‘What he did was transformative,’ Jackson says. ‘Under his leadership the tutors’ approach was, “This is a new art school – let’s play, let’s do the art school that we all want to do.”’ The result is a more diverse, dynamic and discursive place to learn.
Michael O’Reilly working on a painting. Photograph by Harry Borden. One major change was making the course simply fine art rather than dividing it between media, such as painting and sculpture. ‘The extraordinary thing about the Academy Schools is that each cohort comprises just 17 students, but their interests are right across the board,’ Jackson says. ‘Young artists who make video, performance, painting, sculpture and installation all talk to each other – they’re in constant dialogue, and that’s very rare.’
Another recent improvement was to expose the students to ‘as many competing working methods, and as many ideas as possible about what art’s for, what it does, and how it’s disseminated,’ says Brian Griffiths, third-year tutor. Crucial in this process has been a dynamic lecture series that is as likely to feature mathematicians or philosophers as it is artists. As a result, the course is ‘about discourse and hard, critical engagement with the young artists’ practice,’ Jackson says. ‘It is not a gentle ride.’
Eddie Peake is exactly the kind of artist who thrives at the revitalised Academy Schools. His work is hugely varied – the White Cube exhibition included sculpture, painting, a nude performance and an architectural installation, and his performances in particular are an assault on the senses. ‘I really love that Wagnerian idea of the gesamtkunstwerk,’ – a total artwork – ‘and I like to have things happen on a massive scale that might attack you in all directions,’ he told the RA Magazine blog.
Last year, Peake collaborated with Sahib in a show at the Southard Reid gallery in London’s Soho. Sahib’s sculptural installations include sparse, black, twisted glass forms that he calls ‘dead neons’ which appear high up on walls, and mirrored aluminium panels meticulously coated in resin drops to look like sweat or condensation. These are objects that ‘flirt with the viewer,’ he says, and suggest a bodily presence.
Charlie Billingham mixing colours. Photograph by Harry Borden. With Faramawy, Billingham, Ramsden and others also making waves, is there a scene developing at the RA Schools? ‘I feel like there’s something happening inasmuch as everyone has an interesting practice and we’re supportive of each other,’ says Sahib, ‘but I wouldn’t describe it as a new wave or movement.’ Lorcan O’Neill, the Rome-based gallerist who shows both Peake and Sahib, suggests that there is a special energy in the Schools at the moment: ‘There seems to be a supportive feeling in the group, in a manner that I haven’t really experienced in London since the YBAs,’ he says. ‘In the old days, artists formed groups and friendships based on a similarity of work... What was interesting about the YBAs was that their work was quite different, and I would say it’s the same with the group of artists that I’ve met at the Academy.’
‘We hope there’s no house style,’ Jackson says. ‘If there are stylistic traits, they’re probably happening in the world as much as they’re happening in the Academy.’ And the students welcome that variety. ‘We’re all slightly different and slightly at odds with each other, which leads to a very healthy atmosphere,’ says Tim Pratt, whose poetic videos capture everyday objects like a bar of soap in extreme close up, emphasising their sculptural texture.
The breadth of work is dramatic. Each painter has a distinct approach. Nancy Milner makes hard-edged, high-coloured abstracts exploring the space within a painting, while Mary Ramsden’s abstracts are more intimate and sensual in their handling, using textiles to erase and apply paint in swathes of colour. Michael O’Reilly, who is a passionate climber and walker, evokes mysterious, psychedelic Nordic landscapes with painterly flights of fancy.
Esther Yuan working on a canvas for her trompe l’oeil installation. Photograph by Harry Borden. Esther Yuan creates trompe l’oeil paintings of wood panels and honeycomb and puts them together in playful installations. Tom Owen mixes copper with resin which he combines with painterly collages and screenprints on felt to create installations. Bradley Grievson, meanwhile, works on the cusp of collage, painting and drawing, blowing images up into floor-based collages and enlarging pen drawings into tough abstract paintings.
Charlie Billingham’s elaborate canvases celebrate pattern, fusing elements inspired by textiles or even the visual effects of Scooby Doo cartoons with imagery inspired by everything from 17th-century woodcuts and Magritte drawings. These are then set in sumptuously decorative environments, with mock wallpaper and, in the final show, rippling strips of mirror echoing the wavy forms in painted patterns.
Billingham is just one of the students creating mixed-media environments. Many of them use digital technology and the internet both as source material and as a place to show their work. Sacha Craddock, a critic, curator and visiting tutor at the Schools, says that the promiscuous use of media by artists like Peake and Adham Faramawy represents ‘an immense change’ in contemporary art. ‘One just has to admit that the relationship to imagery has changed and a lot of it does exist virtually,’ she adds. ‘It isn’t about the experiential in the same way that it is when you are in front of a picture… it’s sampling and looking at stuff non-stop.’
Faramawy’s work is vivid and energetic, and can manifest as anything from a performance to videos and computer programmes to paintings, all of them drawing on an explosive mixture of influences, from club culture to feminist theory. Other artists exploring digital means include James Robertson. His political motivation has drawn him to use YouTube comments for a text-based video, which is part of his installation exploring the banking crisis and neoliberal economics. Intentionally provocative, challenging and demanding, his installation for the show also includes a tableau of life-size cut-outs of a topless feminist campaigner. Marie von Heyl has used a 3D modelling programme, Google SketchUp, to make prints for an installation that attempts to look through the eyes of a ghost and imagine how it might encounter the material world.
James Robertson with cut-outs for his installation. Photograph by Harry Borden. There is a warmer, more handmade feel to Joseph Frazer’s work with his use of materials such as marquetry veneers, old tartan fabrics and photographs, all brought together in sculptural collages that partly represent himself. Inventive approaches to materials are widespread among this year’s graduating students. Amy Woodward prints photographs onto retro-reflective Lycra, an attention-seeking fabric used on high-visibility clothing, while Sarah Shoughi uses resin to create enticing, mysterious and often vividly coloured objects based on photographic images, including a bizarre-looking cactus from a Brassaï photo. Finally, Stephen Forge is using mundane building materials to evoke the humdrum façades of public spaces, but he displays them like pristine Minimalist sculpture.
Jackson argues that some RA students need to exhibit beyond the Schools now that much art has expanded beyond painting and sculpture. ‘Those people who are involved with performance and the more complex territories of installation actually have to go outside — they need an audience but they also need the space,’ says Jackson. ‘You can’t do everything by using the life room or the corridor or a project space at the Schools.’
Crucially, those who are exhibiting beyond its walls are bringing their experience back into the RA. ‘They are still committed to being here and having discussions about their work, both here and in the galleries,’ Griffiths says. ‘Obviously, we want people to be successful and part of that is learning to show your work.’ Indeed, several students say that seeing colleagues’ shows has helped them develop their own practice or, as Amy Woodward puts it, to ‘find where the art is’ in their work, through exhibiting it. ‘It’s exciting that there are some people who have had a bit more practice,’ she adds, ‘and we can learn from what they’ve done.’
The infectious enthusiasm and undeniably dynamic atmosphere around the Schools have led to an impressive breadth and quality of work in the final show. Jackson is proud that she and her fellow tutors ‘have been able to provide somewhere that’s quite special’ for the young artists. When you visit the RA Schools, it’s impossible to disagree.
- RA Schools Show Schools Studios 19–30 June. RA Schools sponsored by Newton Investment Management.
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