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June 22 2012

Artists of tomorrow rediscover paint's potential

This year's degree shows are teeming and eclectic, but the startling change is the number of promising painters

The lofty central space of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's architectural masterpiece, Glasgow School of Art, is like a Viking hall that has been civilised by soft lines and fine wood. Only, the dark supple beams of this beautiful meeting place have been taken over by a new breed of barbarians: artists.

What kind of student must Mackintosh have imagined working in the sublime studios he built at the start of the 20th century? Probably not one like Rory Price, who has three paintings hanging in the grand hall for this year's degree show. One is called Clusterfuck Concerto Aged 22. It is an explosion of ideas bursting out of a pot, as if released by a spell. He goes for quantity, which in his case does not preclude quality.

In a corridor just off the main hall Price's smaller pictures – dozens of them – are hung in a crazy rag and bone shop of the human heart. They are crazy and likeable. In an adjacent studio, Max Heath shows a portrait that is a surreal pastiche of the 20th century German artist Max Beckmann – A Poor Self Trait.

Art students probably never lived up to the lofty ideals Mackintosh's building seems to demand: it is unlikely they ever did waft through his corridors like so many ethereal roses. In Alasdair Gray's autobiographical fantasia Lanark, a student here in the mid-20th century dreams of creating vast murals. In the 1990s the college produced such students as Douglas Gordon and Christine Borland. This year the crop is as wild as ever. It is striking that some of the most audacious works are paintings and that painting seems once again to be a visual language in which young artists want to experiment and express themselves.

In a tramshed near King's Cross, London, two graduating Central St Martin's students, Isabel Francis Harvey and August Carpenter, have hung strongly contrasting paintings in the same booth. Harvey's are absurdist portraits, such as a dog wearing glasses. Carpenter's are precise yet unreal forms, like genetically mutated fruits from the future. What they share is a lot of assurance.

Their works show the variety of ways in which, on my trail through this year's degree shows, I found the artists of tomorrow taking on the potential of good old pencils and paints. Upstairs in the college's shiny new building, Alison Griffin exhibits a brilliantly detailed and authoritative drawing of a spooky old house. Kim Nazarko shows three haunting paintings of an unconscious man – asleep, ill or dying? These two artists are curious and memorable.

I am not pushing a line here, don't get me wrong, this is not some conservative return to painting at our art schools. The 2012 degree shows are teeming and eclectic, and these baby artists are being creative in an almost infinite variety of media. Look behind Nazarko's paintings at Central and a low wooden doorway tempts you to enter a dark, confined space. To stand up you have to stick your head through a hole in the ceiling – and when you do, you're in a decorated interior a couple of feet high, papered with flowery wallpaper, and brightly lit. Yifan Gao's installation is hilarious disconcerting and immaculately realised.

The range of artistic possibilities explored in the degree shows is glorious and delightfully mindboggling. If you want to see a holographic cabaret, a giant hourglass that measures coastal erosion, a homage to Carl Andre's bricks, a mirrored obelisk, an inflated fabric tube that looks like a Mondrian intestine, a collection of homemade weapons that recall the designs of Leonardo da Vinci, a porn montage, an interactive digital mirror … watch this space.

The shock prize probably has to be shared by Glasgow's Geneva Sills, for a photograph called Self-Portrait with Dead Nude, and Chelsea's Vanessa Scully, for her version of Driller Killer set in the east London art world. This latter is an actual acted remake, 74 minutes long, of Abel Ferrara's notorious 1979 horror film. You can't deny it is unusual.

Horror seems to attract students at Chelsea: if the Glasgow school is an architectural classic, Chelsea's converted military hospital includes a morgue and other spooky rooms that students populate with site-responsive hauntings. What caught my attention was the ghostly voice of art historian Kenneth Clark, in fragments from his 1969 TV series Civilisation, that are juxtaposed with tasty clips from old films in a video installation by Naomi Jones-Morris.

What marks out the best new graduates, in whatever media or none, tends to be a precision and self-knowledge about what they are doing. This is to look at them from the point of view of an art critic – that is, to look for people who might be around for years to come on the art scene. To be a professional artist takes vision, purpose, clarity. I saw strong examples of those traits across the degree shows in all media and (to use the art school terminology) "practices".

But the startling change from last year's shows is undoubtedly the number of promising painters. Where have they all come from? Last year I saw hardly any paintings worth looking at in any of the degree exhibitions. This year there's no doubt that some of the best work was done on paper and canvas, with charcoals and pigments. Which is definitely not to decry Driller Killer E2.


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October 17 2011

Glasgow's Turner connection

Why does Glasgow keep producing so many Turner prize winners and nominees? Could it all be down to this man? Charlotte Higgins investigates

Over the past few years, there has been a distinctly Scottish flavour to the Turner prize. Last year, the winner was Glasgow-born Susan Philipsz, for a sound installation she created in the seedy, dank shadow of a bridge over the Clyde. The year before, it was Richard Wright, for his intricate, painstakingly made wall paintings; he did his masters at the Glasgow School of Art and still lives in the city.

This week, the work of all four shortlisted artists goes on show at the Baltic, Gateshead – and two are Glaswegian: Martin Boyce, whose sculptures do fearful things with modernist interior design; and Karla Black, who uses lipstick, pastel-coloured candles, eyeshadow and sugar paper as her materials. Artists based or born in the city who have been shortlisted in the recent past include Jim Lambie, Christine Borland, Cathy Wilkes, Lucy Skaer and Nathan Coley. There have been two further winners in Douglas Gordon and Simon Starling.

If the Turner prize provides a rough-and-ready compass bearing for visual art in Britain, the needle has for some time been twitching towards this grandiose, grandiloquent, sometimes rough-and-ready city. Why? A clue can be found in the first issue, from September 1991, of the contemporary art magazine Frieze. It contains an interview with three artists in their early 20s. They have just graduated from the Glasgow School of Art. They are articulate, cocky and funny. They seem to know, with an intense certainty, that they are artists, not just art-school graduates. One writes off, with breathtaking chutzpah, a then-prominent school of Scottish painters as "a tiny, unimportant part of the international art world". Another, while admitting such a formulation is crass, says their own work has "more to do with hip-hop and the Face than Constable". These young guns are Douglas Gordon, Nathan Coley and Martin Boyce. Five years after the interview, Gordon – now best known for film works such as 24-Hour Psycho and Zidane – won the Turner prize.

Something very particular happened at the Glasgow School of Art in the late 1980s. A group of young Glaswegians – including Coley, Gordon, Boyce and Borland – began to study a new course: environmental art, led by the now-retired David Harding. "They were confident and confrontational and questioning‚" says Harding, when we meet in his flat among the elegant terraces of Glasgow's west end, a picture of Bob Dylan on the wall, a Peter Seeger LP propped on the piano. "I was astonished by their articulacy."

The course was not traditional painting or sculpture. It was, say its graduates, about ideas. The context for making work was as important as the work itself. The department was not based in the Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed main building, but in a former girls' school that was used as a site for making work. "It was an amazing place," says Harding. "There were basements with 50 children's sinks in them, history books lying around in piles. There were attics, strange, devious, different rooms. An Escher-like staircase. One half of the school was locked off and forbidden. Of course, the students broke in."

The students were required to do art projects outside the school, to find sites, negotiate with owners. "They began to be wheelers and dealers. They had to forage in other departments to get access to dark rooms, printing facilities. They had," says Harding, "a piratical attitude."

It was an attitude in tune with the times. As Coley says, "We were children of Thatcher. Doing it for yourself was in the air. It seems crazy what we did now: we'd get money for international projects out of a combination of ignorance and blind confidence." Down south, a group of artists – many of them graduates from Goldsmith's, London – were also operating in a new way. But if some of these Londoners, quickly dubbed YBAs, were selling to Charles Saatchi and making work with the quickfire cheerfulness of billboard ads, that certainly wasn't happening in Glasgow. The YBAs were entrepreneurs; the Glaswegians were scavengers. Their work was more lyrical, less immediate.

I meet Coley at the Glasgow Sculpture Studios, a hive of quiet industry with its neatly organised metal and wood workshops and its 45 artists' studios. Coley's trim space is hung with work-in-progress: a series of photographs with certain areas blanked out with gold leaf: new work for a solo show in London next year. There was nothing magical about his and his friends' success, he says. "It was really, really hard work." It is clear, though, that there was a set of propitious circumstances that affected not just these young people in Glasgow, but the art world internationally. Moira Jeffrey, art critic of the Glasgow-based Herald newspaper, points out that the artists emerged "at a politically desperate moment. We forget how horrible the late 1980s were. It was the dwindling Tory era. In Glasgow, the situation was economically dire, but there was a good education system and student grants – and you could live cheaply." There was also, she says, a certain power "in the fabric of this city, built on sugar, ships and slavery. It is a very ambiguous heritage, but incredibly grand."

Perhaps the most important factor, though, was the web of relationships established between those students from the late 1980s – a way of interacting that seems to have set the tone for the Glasgow art world since. According to Harding: "We partied a lot. Drank a lot. And with people like Douglas, Martin, Nathan, I'd go to their weddings, their children's christenings, birthday parties, and still do."

The students fell in, and sometimes out, of love with each other. They mostly lived near each other, up on the windy heights of Garnethill near the art school. Gordon went out with Borland, and shared a flat with Katrina Brown, now a curator, who went out with Coley (the latter couple are still together). Brown is now director of The Common Guild, a gallery based in a house in Glasgow belonging to Gordon. Later, Gordon was best man at Richard Wright and Sarah Lowndes' wedding; she now lectures at the art school, and has written a study of the city's art scene called Social Sculpture.

After graduating, a rite of passage for many was to sit on the committee for the artist-run gallery, Transmission, which had been set up in 1983 to instigate all kinds of international projects. According to Coley, "There was a mixture of gallusness, confidence, and being a bit wide." Gallus is one of those almost untranslatable Scots words that hovers somewhere between uncompromising, bold, swaggering and unstoppable. Harding uses it, too. "They were gallus. They were going to prove that they could do something." They also, crucially, helped each other. Coley says, if a curator comes to Glasgow to see you, "There's an unwritten rule that you introduce them to someone else, too."

Borrow a book from a pop star

It wasn't a paradise; it was a struggle. There was some public funding, and the artists were often helped by unsung, visionary civil servants. But when the city's Gallery of Modern Art opened in 1998, it totally – and scandalously – ignored the new wave of Glasgow artists. Brown thinks that that early institutional blindness has been damaging, particularly to Glasgow's ability to support a market for contemporary art. "If your city gallery is saying Beryl Cook is an important artist, maybe you don't want to buy a Douglas Gordon," she speculates. The economics of the scene, she says, are "fragile".

This autumn, Sorcha Dallas, a Glasgow gallerist, announced she was closing her doors, citing the combination of the removal of the Creative Scotland funding that allowed her to visit international art fairs, and the recession. "It's not that there aren't rich people," says Dallas. "It's just that they choose to spend their money elsewhere. People here would be more inclined to buy a Jack Vettriano than a Douglas Gordon." Environmental art graduate Toby Webster, who co-founded The Modern Institute, a commercial gallery that has been of huge importance in promoting the work of the major Glasgow artists, says it is important for him to be in the city, "two minutes away from where the artists work". But most of his buyers live elsewhere. Perhaps the scene is so close-knit because its leading lights remain relatively unsung in their own city.

Is the Glasgow scene a flash in the pan, a one-off alchemical combination of people, place and time? The scene has, of course, changed. Different kinds of students have been attracted by the city's rising reputation, coming from England and abroad (at first, they were nearly all natives). Some of the early wave have stayed or drifted back to Glasgow, Borland, Boyce, Coley and David Shrigley all live here, no longer young guns, but established artists in their 40s. Jeffrey believes pop musicians set an important example, showing that you didn't have to move to London to make it. "It set a paradigm. Stephen Pastel, of the Pastels, had an international career, and he worked in a library. You could go and borrow a book from your favourite pop star. The people you'd see in the pub were selling records all over the world."

Harding has seen great changes to art-school education, funding cuts chief among them. His department was merged with sculpture. A decade ago, he retired. But he still has faith in students, he says. According to Jeffrey: "I had a period where I worried that Glasgow School of Art would become a posh finishing school: but people come here and start behaving like Glaswegian artists."

I ask Sarah Lowndes if she believes Glasgow will continue to produce Turner-shortlisted artists, or whether we are reaching the end of an era. She reels off younger but already established names such as Torsten Lauschmann and Lorna Macintyre; and mentions younger artists, too, "bright sparks" such as Tom Varley and Rebecca Wilcox. "There's a network that's not predicated on commercial success, but on the idea of community," she says.

And now for a song

In search of a younger scene, I head to a gallery called the Duchy, carved out of an old shop near St Mungo's Cathedral; it's a slightly ramshackle part of the city being smartened up for the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Here, Glaswegians Lauren Currie, 26, and Ainslie Roddick, 24, are putting the finishing touches to their new show. The two – Currie, a graduate of Dundee's Duncan of Jordanstone college; Roddick, from the Glasgow School of Art – met when they were working in a deli, and set up the Duchy out of a conviction, says Currie, that "there needed to be somewhere for our generation of artists".

They turned next door into studios and rented them out to raise income for the gallery. They converted the space themselves. These immensely self-possessed young women, in their energetic but co-operative way, seem to have much of the spirit of their predecessors. "The older artists are accessible," says Roddick. "They go to shows, and there's something that keeps them here. It has given people a confidence that you can stay in Glasgow as an artist." This is a not-for-profit space; they are not interested in running a commercial gallery. "It's not needed," says Roddick firmly.

Towards the end of our conversation, Harding says something out of the blue: "The singing – that was really important." There was always lots of singing, he says. Every year, he would host a Burns supper in his flat. All the guests were expected to recite a poem or song. There is something remarkable about imagining these cool, perhaps rather belligerent, young artists standing up and singing, say, Scottish songs from their childhoods. Harding remembers one night in particular: "Before Douglas started singing, he said, 'I want to tell you a story. A curator was asking me: what were you taught in Glasgow? Where did it all come from?' And Douglas said, 'Singing.'"


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June 04 2011

Glasgow School of Art, 1909

As part of an interactive series exploring Britain's architectural wonders, critic Rowan Moore introduces our 360 degree panoramic image of the library at Glasgow School of Art

● Click here to explore the image

The history of architecture is also the history of images of architecture, and one changes the other. Now, thanks to computer software which stitches together dozens of photographs taken from a single point at different angles, it is possible to communicate buildings in a new way. You are put in the middle of a space, and – using your computer mouse or dragging your iPad screen – you can look in any direction you choose: up, down, sideways, diagonally, in any direction in full 360 degree turn, in three dimensions. With these images, the rules change. You are immersed, not put at a distance, and the experience of being inside a space becomes more important than viewing a detached object. Interior counts more than exterior and a basic truth about architecture, that it is ultimately about making spaces not things, becomes apparent.

The library of the Glasgow School of Art is tiny compared with St Paul's and Wembley but it stands up well to the scrutiny of 360-degree panoramic photographs. It is the most highly wrought and finely made part of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's original and brilliant building which, partly due to a restricted budget, combines the rough, the raw and the exquisite.

The school is a building of many moods, using everything from exposed concrete to stained glass. The library is a vertical, galleried space, with light filtering through layers of dark timber structure. There is something Japanese in the way the interlocking and joining of pieces of wood is revealed but the spirit and detail is all Mackintosh's own, which is all the more remarkable for the fact that he was only 28 when he won the commission to design the school.

Much of library design is about handling different scales and registers: from the intimate contemplation of books by readers to a world of knowledge that is the institution as a whole. It is private and public at once. Mackintosh's room handles these ranges superbly.


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December 08 2010

This one's for you, Glasgow

Turner prize star Susan Philipsz comes from a long line of innovative artists and musicians with Glaswegian roots

Douglas Gordon, who in 1996 became the first Glaswegian artist to win the Turner prize, was once asked what he had been taught at Glasgow School of Art. His reply was simple. "To sing," he said. "Not how to sing, but simply to sing."

Those words now seem prophetic. On Monday night, Susan Philipsz, another artist born and raised in Glasgow – although now based in Berlin – followed in Gordon's footsteps. Philipsz was nominated for the Turner for her sound installation Lowlands (2010), which consisted of recordings of the artist singing a 16th-century lament for a drowned lover, originally played beneath three bridges on Glasgow's River Clyde before being transposed to Tate Britain.

Since 1996, no fewer than 10 artists associated with Glasgow have been nominated for the Turner, including Christine Borland (1997), Martin Creed (2001), Jim Lambie and Simon Starling (both 2005), Nathan Coley (2007), Cathy Wilkes (2008), Lucy Skaer and Richard Wright (both 2009). Of these, five won: Gordon, Creed, Starling, Wright and Philipsz. It's a reflection of the way in which Glasgow has emerged from post-industrial decline to become the UK's main art centre after London, with a reputation for producing innovative and highly acclaimed artists and musicians.

But there's more to it than simply that. Many of the best-known artists from Glasgow emerged from the Environmental Art Department at the city's art school (where, as it happens, I also teach). Students were encouraged to produce art outside studios and galleries ("with or through people", in the words of the course description). Crucially, they were also expected to seek permission to install their work in the public domain, breeding both confidence and an abiding interest in context and site-specific work. Those interests were evident in their post-graduation projects, notably the 1991 Windfall exhibition, organised by Douglas Gordon, Martin Boyce, Nathan Coley and others in the disused Seaman's Mission by the Clyde, and positively reviewed in the inaugural issue of Frieze magazine. The obvious parallel is with Goldsmiths College, London, and you might compare Windfall and the 1988 Docklands exhibition Freeze, which precipitated the beginning of the YBA phenomenon.

That comparison only goes so far, however. Collectors of contemporary art in Glasgow are few and far between, and the city certainly has no equal to London gallerist and collector Charles Saatchi, so often credited with creating much of the hype around the YBAs. The establishment of The Modern Institute by Will Bradley, Charles Esche and Toby Webster in 1998 and more recently, the young commercial galleries Sorcha Dallas and Mary Mary has changed that situation to a certain extent, but Glasgow remains a city in which many artists make work that they do not expect to sell. Much of the most notable art that has emerged from the city since the early 90s has been deliberately non-permanent, short-term and ephemeral, and made on very tight budgets. Without the relentless enthusiasm of people mounting exhibitions, playing gigs and throwing parties in tenement flats, pub basements and disused buildings, none of it would have happened at all.

Philipsz's Lowlands, which was commissioned for Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, underlined the importance of live music in generating a sense of community in Glasgow. The three adjacent Clyde bridges where Philipsz's work was installed were built during the late 19th and early 20th century, when Glasgow was the workshop of the world and the fourth largest city in Europe, after London, Paris and Berlin. At this time folk traditions flourished in the worker's inns, taverns and shebeens around the city's Bridgegate, Saltmarket and Gallowgate – where bars like The Victoria and The Scotia are still active gathering places for folk singers and musicians today. Indeed, last year's Turner prize winner, painter Richard Wright, supported his work during the 80s and early 90s by playing banjo and guitar at numerous ceilidhs and gigs around the city – and now plays in alt-pop band Correcto with Franz Ferdinand's Paul Thomson.

Wright is by no means unusual amongst his peers. Many of Glasgow's best-known artists are also musicians, such as Jim Lambie, who was once in a band called the Boy Hairdressers and still moonlights as a DJ. Cathy Wilkes performed with all-women collective Elizabeth Go, and 2008 Jarman prize winner Luke Fowler plays in experimental band Rude Pravo. Most of the city's best-known bands, including Franz Ferdinand and The Phantom Band, have members who trained at Glasgow School of Art.

The city's art and music scenes have grown in tandem because, as Glasgow-based writer Nicola White, put it in a 1995 essay, "Parties matter. They are part of the glue that holds any artistic community together, compensation for pursuing what is, at heart, a very solitary line of work." When Douglas Gordon took to the rostrum in 1996 to accept the Turner prize, his first thought was to thank his family and the people he called "the Scotia Nostra". Susan Philipsz, too, dedicated her award to her family and friends, saying "this is for you". She couldn't have put it better.

Sarah Lowndes is the author of Social Sculpture: The Rise of the Glasgow Art Scene (2010)


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