Art school graduates do Bacon proud


The end-of-year shows in Limerick, Cork and Galway display skill, passion and a grasp of technique

YOU NEED three things, Francis Bacon said, if you are an artist: a subject matter that fascinates you, a knowledge of art history, and technical ability. If you emerge from art school with all three you’re doing pretty well. But managing to has become a bit problematic, as the definition of visual art has diversified into just about anything. A decline in the teaching of technical skills has coincided with the rise of conceptualism and new media, but also with post-modernity per se, and a discrediting of the idea of “good” painting, drawing or sculpture in a technical sense.

There are always ways around technical limitations, but a visit to art school graduate shows should convince anyone that you can’t simply dismiss technique as being irrelevant. This is true even if the artist opts for digital photographic processes, which are now so effective that, as David Bailey put it, “they make mediocrity look good”. But no matter what medium is used, the artist should feel comfortable and confident with it.

At Limerick School of Art and Design (LSAD), David Connor entertainingly recreates and photographs classical figurative paintings (and records the process on video), exploring painters’ use of illusion. But where his work falls down is in its routine, almost indifferent use of photography. He hasn’t thought about the images with anything like the attentiveness of the original artists. At CIT Cork, on the other hand, Anna Guadagnini draws directly on Pre-Raphaelite and Renaissance painters for her lively photographic tableaux, which are meticulously staged and photographed and exceptionally alive.

Again at LSAD, Claire Walsh uses photography in a conceptually sophisticated way without for a minute thinking that the concept can substitute for the quality of the image. In carefully composed photographs, she documents the changing face of a hotel function room as a malleable space continually reinvented to reflect its role in social ritual. It’s a fascinating body of work of real metaphorical scope that deserves further exposure.

Helen Roseanne Lynch (CIT) combines human figures with birds in poised, iconic images and other works, in a persuasive, allegorical way, with perhaps a nod to Alice Maher. Geraldine Cahill’s (LSAD) striking portraits of her mother as dairy farmer draw on the tradition of classical portraiture but use photography brilliantly.

Cahill isn’t alone in focusing on her mother. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, family concerns of one sort of another rank high among graduates in terms of subject matter that fascinates. Neil Browne’s (LSAD) exceptional film, He, The Townfeatures his mother’s memories and reflections on her recently deceased father and her husband. It’s a sensitive, compelling, brave and quite surprising piece.

Landscape and nature also exert a continuing fascination. Both Ashleigh Ellis and June Fairhead at CIT try in different ways to capture a sense of the wider, underlying patterns and textures of the natural world across a range of scales. And both come up with beautiful, visually elegant ways of doing so.

Taking quite a different tack at Galway Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT), ceramicist Sarah Ryan’s Ceramics is dirtis one of the best sculptural works on display anywhere. It consists of a pyramidal heap of discarded lumps of clay, with weeds sprouting here and there. Technique? Well, no, but gosh she’s found a way around it.

At their core, painting and drawing are not just conceptual strategies that can be adopted and abandoned with ease, though that is how they are treated in a substantial proportion of the work on view in graduate shows. If you are going to use them, the daily practice of painting and drawing are a necessary part of the process. Svetlana Shuks’s (CIT) exploration of the dockland and Port of Cork evidence careful, patient application. Her paintings go slightly awry when she ups the scale, but they are generally good and at their best recall Eithne Jordan’s mode of even, low-key observation.

Something has clicked for Sinéad Moloney (CIT), as she seems to have found her voice in her most recent, colourful, humorous compositions. Jack Hickey’s (CIT) fragmentary views of figures in interiors are well judged if a little heavy-handed in execution.

Claire Michelle O’Connor (LSAD) inventively questions the act of depicting someone, including oneself. A number – almost a group in terms of what they share – of painters at GMIT are distinctly promising, especially Michelle Conway, Kate Molloy, Noelle Gallagher and Siubhán Leannán Nic Fhionnlaoich.

Looking at this year’s graduate shows, it’s notable that Cork is particularly strong, but also that, overall, the standard of work and presentation is high. Moreover, a significant proportion of the graduates really have a great deal to contribute to cultural life, within and beyond their notional disciplines. It’s a fair bet that we’ll be hearing a lot more from them.