Sluggish sales, sparse funding and off curators’ radar. Who’d be an artist?

It’s not an easy time to emerge from art college. But this year’s graduate exhibitions are full of work by students who deserve further exposure


Who would want to study to be a visual artist these days? To gain an academic qualification you work for an indefinite number of years before emerging, blinking, into the harsh light of an outside world that is largely indifferent to your talents and aspirations. And it’s no secret that, while showing signs of life, the art market in Ireland has yet to emerge from recession.

More to the point, the traditional model of art practice, whereby artists find gallerists who represent them, exhibiting and selling their work, has been quietly superseded by a new order. Prestigious galleries certainly still count, but in the emergent scheme of things they must sell their wares at big international art fairs, such as Basel and Frieze. And much power resides with curators, whose influence on an artist’s status and prospects can be decisive.

The curators who matter can operate from an institutional background, such as the Serpentine Gallery’s prolific Hans-Ulrich Obrist, who is something of a curatorial superstar, or they can work independently, as many do. At the head of any of the growing number of international exhibitions of contemporary art, inclusion in which is central to an artist’s CV, they wield something close to absolute power, deciding the nature and direction of the shows, and who’s in and who’s out. With the exception of a few established artists, Ireland doesn’t really feature on their radar.

Increasingly, on the international stage, funding bodies both private and public finance the production of artists’ work. On that score Ireland lags substantially behind; here the artist is usually last in line, even an afterthought.

So: the local art market is in a state of suspension; sources of funding other than sluggish direct sales are distinctly sparse; and Ireland hardly registers on the international curatorial map. The immediate prospects for young artists are, to put it mildly, challenging. A salmon heading for its spawning ground might feel a pang of sympathy for the average fine-art graduate.

Graduate exhibitions

Despite this the past few weeks have seen a succession of fine-art graduate exhibitions, concentrated in Dublin and extending throughout the country, notably in Cork, Limerick and Galway. Grad shows conclude an academic process, but they’re also, tellingly, open. They mark the arrival in the public arena of hundreds of artists, young and mature. That’s hundreds more artists, of course, joining the practitioners already there. One would have to conclude that they really want to do what they’re doing, irrespective of reward. News coverage tends to concentrate on artists who achieve worldwide celebrity, such as Ai Weiwei, or record auction prices, such as Damien Hirst. The average artist’s chances of attaining either are probably less than their winning the lottery.

Unlike most other subjects, fine-art courses fundamentally depend on what the students bring to them. Even closely related subjects, such as fashion, ceramics and visual communications (which used to be known as graphic design), though they entail creative input, are more closely meshed with real-world needs in terms of skills and occupations. The proliferation of digital technologies, for example, has led to big demand for design skills in visual communications, and those graduates tend to find paid employment, often before they’ve completed their studies.

Yet the lure of being an artist, free to follow your own creative inclination or compulsions, clearly remains powerful. In terms of following one’s instincts, some surprises emerge from this year’s grad shows. One is a resurgence of two traditional media: painting and print. The names of art-school departments had become purely nominal: a painting student was as likely to work conceptually, say, or with film, as to actually paint. This year many graduates, at both degree and master’s levels, engage with painting in informed, committed ways.

They may test the boundaries of what painting can be, but they clearly operate within terms of a core discipline. Perhaps the excitement of new media has worn off. At the National College of Art and Design, Martha Daly drifts deep into sculptural territory with terrific three-dimensional pieces (with echoes of Sam Keogh), and Maighréad Bussmann uses photography in a very painterly way. But there’s a sizeable list of painters, all of whom are to be reckoned with and show first-rate work: Joan Coen, Denis Kelly, Lesley-Ann O’Connell, Fiachra Ó Súilleabháin, Kyle McDonald, Ciara O’Toole and Lorraine Cross.

That extends to Evelyn Murphy and Caroline O’Hora at Limerick School of Art and Design and Marcela Gomolova, Christine Bowers and Ailbh Nic Cinnogamhna at Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology. At CIT Crawford College of Art and Design, Karen Hickey-O’Shea’s evocation of family, Lee Lucey’s dreamy images of swampy wooded terrain and Maria O’Sullivan’s seething, crowded cityscapes are all strong. Joseph Keating showed a very impressive body of work, with painting at its heart, about place, belonging and the emigrant experience. The moody northern expressiveness of Per Kirkeby comes to mind.

The same holds for print as for painting. Students had tended to see print as a springboard towards faster, digital media. Now, it’s as if they are rediscovering the appeal of slow, careful, technical means while not being afraid to use other elements. At NCAD Robert Dingle, Sienna Mac Anna, Chloe Phipps and Julia McAteer all use traditional print techniques with impressive skill to inventively address mostly contemporary subjects.

The same goes for Kerri O’Mahony at IADT – woodblock print and etching – and Áine Curran at Crawford, whose mezzotints of prosthetic anatomical implants vividly illustrate the marriage of old and new.

More conceptually, at Dublin Institute of Technology Sophie Robson uses historical print conventions to elaborate a series of invented artistic personas. And the print graduate Amber Baruch (NCAD) uses staged photography very effectively, while Janet Dennehy’s works vividly evoke bodily presence at LSAD. The overall impression is of a promiscuous freedom of means, which has to be good.

Sketchbook photography

Apart from being a primary medium, photography is also today’s equivalent of the sketchbook. DIT and IADT have long had strong photography departments. Cork also has photography graduates this year, including Siabh Nicoleta Wall, whose carefully set up night-time studies of trees and wooded landscapes are richly atmospheric. At IADT, Mark Ward’s intensely observed details from the suburban environment make up a great series. There as well, Suzi Sue Kelly’s Negative Equity project is exemplary in concept and design, as is Violetta Gorkina’s studies of disused factories in the Latvian city of Daugavpils.

At DIT, Ciarán Healy’s The Familiar Wolf, a series on dogs, their owners and their homes, is an obvious idea but memorably done. His photobook brings out the excellence of the project. Marco Novara’s Invisible Landscapes are fine studies of otherwise ordinary urban landscapes in Italy poisoned by illegal dumping of toxic waste.

The strength of traditional media does not come at the expense of conceptualism, performance or film. See Aaron Stapleton, Aidan Wall, Ronan Fahey or Nicola Whelan’s elaborate eBay auctioning of her artistic self, for example, all at NCAD, or Claire McEvoy’s ingenious use of an Ikea flat-pack chair at DIT, or Róisín Bohan at Crawford. Surveillance crops up several times as an issue, memorably in work by Lorraine Hogan at Crawford, Adrian Langtry at DIT and, ingeniously, by John Murphy at NCAD.

Graham Delaney’s slapstick set-ups at IADT refer to Buster Keaton. Physical performance is also represented by Leah Smith at IADT and Paola Catizone’s immersive use of charcoal powder at NCAD. Aoife Byrne at DIT uses immersive performance to explore issues of “guilt, shame and vulnerability” in female social experience. At NCAD, Jane Locke brilliantly marries an installation with an illustrated talk, rather in the mould of Sabina Mac Mahon’s witty subversion of archival, historical processes.

Liam Gough’s extraordinary drawings of documents at NCAD stand out, and Katie Watchorn’s sculptural evocation of the routine of animal farming is also extremely good. At IADT, Rachel-Rose O’Leary’s riff on the four elements uses forms and materials with similarly inspired, bravely instinctive poetic feeling. At LSAD, Rebecca Mahmood edgily addresses cultural roles by means of several costumed mannequins elaborating on perceptions of the Islamic mother.

Will more be heard of those who graduated this year? That’s something of a lottery. But any artist mentioned here, and many more besides, certainly merit further exposure, and their work should emerge in exhibitions throughout the coming year.

NCAD Graduate Exhibition is at NCAD campus, 100 Thomas Street, Dublin 8, and nearby venues until Monday

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