Artists on the line


The sense of personal commitment on offer at this year's art school graduation shows is clear, and at times even extreme, writes Aidan Dunne

Mid-afternoon in Cork and, in a small room in the Crawford College of Art and Design, Tessa Power is leaning over a young woman who is lying back in a chair, completely unmoving, her eyes closed.

Both are clad in black. At first glance there is something vampiric about the image. Power is focused and intent, even predatory. Occasionally she sips water from a glass, then lets the water flow on to the face of her collaborator.

Then she sets about, effectively, kissing one of her subject's eyes, which is bathed in water. We can be sure of this because a jeweller's lamp, with a magnifying glass, is positioned to frame the action, as is a video camera which relays a live feed to a projector.

Power repeats this sequence of actions calmly over and over again. It's a tender image but also, in vastly enlarged close-up, a slightly disturbing, unsettling one. As a piece of performance work, it is impressive: enigmatic, precisely conceived and organised, and carried out with great discipline. It links eye and mouth, oral and visual, in a thoughtful, memorable way.

This year a composite cluster of performance artists emerged from the various art colleges. It's not clear whether this is entirely due to the example of Amanda Coogan, but she has been a significant and, in terms of students, generous presence in the national context. Certainly her demanding professionalism, fostered by Marina Abramovic, has influenced several graduates, including Power.

Elements of ritual and endurance were also to the fore in Marie Louise O'Dwyer's outstanding video documentation of performances at DIT, mostly addressing domestic routine. Abramovic, Martha Rosler and Janine Antoni were direct references for the most arresting of her pieces, Kitchen Clean, in which her performance - simply put, she scrubs a kitchen floor with her hair - takes on a terrifying, visceral momentum of its own, building to a point of catharsis.

In a way, art graduates have a particularly hard time. It's not enough for them to master an academic subject, as it is for students in other areas. They are expected to have something, and to give something of themselves. They are on the line. And generally they do give. Their sense of personal commitment is clear and can be, as with O'Dwyer, positively extreme.

While visual art has become more and more diverse, and incorporated more and more that is not visual at all, one feels that there should all the same be a specific responsibility to the visual in what goes on in art colleges. More than ever now, there is a sense that images are cheap, and easy - something that is itself a subject for several artists, including Limerick's Erika Cagney's use of ambiguous, pixillated mobile phone images. While, in Cork, Greer MacKeogh's ingenious sculptural installation actually took perception, and illusion, as its subject.

Time and again in the graduate shows there were examples of sequences of images produced with reckless abandon, a scattergun approach. Even more carefully devised images were not all they should or could have been. Look at Helen Fenton's photograph of a disintegrating Aga range (in the Crawford show) and you felt, gosh, put some work into that and you might have had a really superb piece there. The subject - an abandoned, deteriorating house - is good, and the work is very good and entirely competent, but could have been something much more, something special. Many contemporary photographic artists look to the history of painting not only to refer to archetypal subjects but because painters learned exhaustively how to compose and construct images effectively.

Take Jeff Wall or any of dozens of other photographers. In this case, a careful study of the work of Robert Polidori would surely have been invaluable. But it could be that students and lecturers are not looking carefully at those kind of problems, that the question of getting one image right, of working on a single image, is seen as somehow irrelevant in an era awash with imagery. Yet get one image right and you've solved a much bigger, more general problem than you might think.

This problem simply didn't arise in the case of the DIT's photography graduates. As with Dún Laoghaire's Institute of Art, Design and Technology, DIT's photographic department really has its act together (perhaps to the extent that one wonders, anxiously, whether it tends to direct its students into set moulds). In any case, its graduate show, Photoworks 2006, was a model of professional practice. Every image, you felt, had been the subject of careful planning and critical discussion. The show (presumably echoing the course work), was project orientated, meaning each student had a concentrated, cohesive body of work, allowing them to venture into some unexpected areas. In her extraordinary multi- stranded work, Abaigeal Meek, for example, explored the representation of an increased level of infanticide in Ireland in the 1940s.

ONE OF THE aims of the course is that the work should inquire into the nature of culture and society, and the show delivered on that, with Fred Reilly's study of the impact of BSE on an Irish farm, for example, and diverse accounts of the changing material environment by Grainne Smith, Kevin Fox, Vincent Lestienne, Caroline Hunt and Rory Curtis. In each case, their work has the effect of making us look again at things taken for granted, consigned to something like invisibility. While some of what they did, and other projects in the show, were derivative, that is an entirely reasonable characteristic of graduate work.

Equally, Ulla Schildt's set-piece photographs of natural history museums and zoos echo other versions of the theme, but were extremely well done.

Several Limerick print, sculpture and combined media graduates used photography with comparable incisiveness. Myles Shelly's documentary photographs of an increasingly common sight, defunct petrol stations, was an exemplary project, though his surprising identification of the rising cost of oil as the reason is surely wrong (more likely, garages are closing because the ground they occupy is simply worth so much money). The garish presentation of Róis Ní Dhochartaigh's photographic recreations of the final meals of inmates on death row was pointedly at variance with its subject matter.

GMIT's Sarah Malone had a brilliant series of photographs, each isolating a forensic detail against an almost abstract workaday background. Also at GMIT, Edel Gilhooly's gritty urban landscapes, featuring barriers to access, were good.

In Limerick, Mary Healy, a graduate in print, staged ambitious photographic tableaux reworking iconic paintings with great verve, showing a vastly more attentive awareness of painting than most of her fellow graduates in the painting department. It's all very well saying that artists working in photography would do well to look to painting, but what about the painters themselves? In virtually every college (the exceptions being NCAD and Dún Laoghaire, with most graduates from the former, particularly, displaying both ability and awareness of contemporary painting), there was an alarming lack of fundamental ability.

This is not a question of style or effect: many graduates in painting seemed, disastrously, to take the technical aspects of their discipline entirely for granted, and lacked basic skills in handling paint, never mind doing what they chose to do with it. Limited technical ability is no impediment to real achievement, but the absence of any ability at all surely is.

Consistently, there was a yawning gap between those who were relatively or very good and those who simply hadn't got to grips at all with their chosen area of endeavour. In these circumstances, it's nice to come across not only competence, but someone whose sensibility seems instinctively attuned to what they are doing. At GMIT, Fiona Moore, for example, came across as being a fine, defiantly unshowy painter with a distinctive, subtle vision and a feeling for surface. Her diptychs, inspired by landscape, displayed an impressive grasp of overall scale, structure and tonality. Her prodigious use of off-whites, subtle in effect, is something that is really difficult to carry off well. One hopes she goes on to complete an MA and, more importantly, keeps developing as a painter.

Notably impressive in Limerick were Aisling Kearney, with a group of highly original, slightly disturbing portraits; Kevin O'Keeffe, with meticulous, inventive accounts of personal space; Donnagh McNamara, with a display of manic, outlaw energy; Ann Mulcahy, with meditations on decay; Paula O'Connell, with optically unsettling images about people and movement; and Mark Kelly, with geometric abstractions derived from iconic paintings - paintings about looking and making pictures.

In Cork, Aisling Smyth's richly descriptive pictures evoked the sheer textural density of lived experience and memory, while Mark Whelan focused with precision on workaday details. Sandra Norris showed real feeling for landscapes, Grace Coveney boldly took on big, broad expanses of colour, and Rian Coughlan took a brave, if not fully resolved, approach to the problem of depicting the figure, as did Lynn Foster Fitzgerald and Daragh Hughes at DIT. GMIT's Angela O'Brien's over-painted photographic grids were convincing, as were Isabelle Gaborit's delicately stained and collaged canvases.

IN THE PAST the Crawford prided itself on keeping in touch with traditional media. Gradually, though, newer media have tended to eclipse the older in quality. Print has proved to be a centre of technical innovation. This year, Michael Hannon emerged as an exceptionally capable video artist, his work providing an accessible and effective antidote to those poisoned by the very mention of the phrase "student video art".

A kinetic emphasis in Cork was also evident in Calvin Kissane's amazing sculptural piece and Sarah Dunne's three substantial sound sculptures, which fully exploited their dual musical-sculptural pedigree (she is also completing a music degree). Her Concerto for Three Mechanical Planers was startlingly ambitious, but no more so than her other works. At GMIT, incidentally, Ziva Ellis's use of standard plumbing materials in a William Reich-inspired installation echoed Dunne in its imaginative scope.

It is impossible to do justice to the sheer number of individual artists who produced memorable work in a restricted space. So, some snapshots:

From Cork: Miriam Canty's use of multiplied photographic images in abstract compositions; David Grannell's animated lego versions of such film genres as the spaghetti Western; Stephen Buckley's inventive digital images describing dark areas of experience with a Gothic edge; and Anniina Alastalo's superb ceramics.

From GMIT: Linda Ward's exploration of loss; Sarah Collins's tractor seats; Rachel Webb's metaphorical boxes; Aoife Geary's currach-inspired installation; Kathryn O'Brien's elegantly folded prints; and Nicky Larkin's exploration of hard-bitten macho stereotypes.

From Limerick: Patrick Keaveney's confessional monologue, Louise Shine's television test card and shopping channel videos; Marian McGrath's studies of skin; Lynsey Brennan's evocations of murky ponds; Mairead Morley's reworking of Bellocq's enigmatic portraits; Eadoin Cronin's time-travelling study of gender roles in the family; David Flanagan's animated film; Sophia Larkin's exploration of wannabe celebrity culture; Darren Moroney's architectonic construction.

And from DIT: Niall de Buitléar's obsessive archives of the everyday, Padraig Cahill's focus on redundant spaces; Vincent Harris's study of simulation and real destruction; Sarah Symes making the invisible visible with work inspired by fungal spores: and Claire McKeown's treatment of cosmetic surgery.

All these graduates really gave something of themselves, and hopefully gained something in return.

DIT Graduate 06, Dublin Institute of Technology Fine Art Graduate Show 2006 Photoworks 2006, DIT Photography Graduate Show 2006

Hung Well, Crawford College of Art and Design Fine Art Degree Show 2006

Reveal, Limerick School of Art and Design Fine Art Graduate Show 2006

GMIT 2006, Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology Fine Art Degree Show 2006