Degrees of success at graduate exhibitions


Like the Roman god Janus, art schools have two faces, one, like that of any third-level institution, looking inwards to the demands of academe, the other looking outwards, to the world beyond.

This obligation to address the outside world comes around once a year, in the form of the graduate exhibition, when the public reputation of the institution momentarily depends on the quality of the work of its graduates. For students it's a tough experience but one that is immensely useful in terms of what's to follow.

At the National College of Art and Design Tara Carr cleverly reverses the process by publicly exploring what she sees as the usually hidden energies of the institution. Snappily presented and couched in the language of surveys and service providers, her piece charts the experiences of four students across the range of faculties. She's not the only graduate to use the paraphernalia of the business world inventively. The white office of Theresa Nanigan (NCAD MA) becomes the head of its absent occupant, awash with flow charts in which the personal has been subsumed in to the team-building psychobabble of corporate culture. Philippe Murphy, at Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design & Technology (IADT), has made an amazing copy of a photocopier that somehow captures a sense of suppressed hysteria underlying the blandness of office routine.

To expect competence, coherence and a distinctive artistic vision from graduate students is to demand a great deal. For many years the dominant form of graduation exhibit has been the installation - that is, the sculptural, often multimedia, multimaterials installation - which is a useful way of achieving coherence, but often clouding the issues of competence and vision. There is a risk in putting all your eggs in one basket, and part of the risk is that each installation is a novelty turn. It's still, just about, the dominant form, and there are many good installations on view this year, but it does seem as if its rule is waning.

Installation in the wider sense of the term is arguably superseding it. Remarkably, this year's graduation exhibitions feature a significant number of prototype solo shows of a very high standard. You could essentially move any of them in to a regular exhibition space and they would count as impressive bodies of work. Mind you, given the nature of the MA system, which draws in students already embarked on their careers, this is not that surprising. Mark Swords (NCAD), for example, has already had a solo show, at the Ashford Gallery.

His cool, oblique paintings are balanced on the cusp between abstraction and representation, often offering and denying recognisable motifs in the same breath. They mingle references to nature and culture high and low, and they have an air of something close to whimsy, but always underscored by a darker, more troubling note. They're made with a lovely touch and a sophisticated sense of colour and texture. They are worth dwelling on, because these and comparable qualities are characteristic of one of the main, arguably most fruitful modes of painting at the moment.

Other exemplars are Jonathan Hunter (NCAD), who has also exhibited previously and whose landscapes play with our reading of painterly illusion in a way that recalls the work of Liz Magill. Then there's Philippa Sutherland. Her sequence of confidently made, low-key pictures are related to a narrative thread and are hence more explicit about their subject matter, as indicated in an accompanying video, Places Of Interest In The Northern Forests, which, like the paintings, is all nuance and atmosphere, and unerringly right. Intriguingly, she seems able to move freely and effectively between painting, video and photography.

IADT lives up to its reputation for photography, with strong photographic work extending beyond the department per se. Sonja Suominen, taking a degree in fine art, has already impressed with her photography-diploma work. Her new group of photographs makes up a faultless installation. Every piece reinforces the others. Each is a study of a functional, empty room in an art institution. Her approach is clearly related to the German-influenced school of "objective", topographical photography pioneered by Bernd and Hilla Becher. Candid Hofer's architectural studies come particularly to mind in Suominen's case, but she has her own concerns, which she pursues brilliantly.

Apart from anything else her images make up a commentary on the representation of space - and indeed, given their subject matter and detail, on artistic representation in general. They are subtly observed. Chances are that you will gradually register her incorporation of ways in and out of the spaces and ways in which those spaces are afforded additional, hidden dimensions: doorways, ladders, screens, platforms, empty canvas stretchers, canvases with their faces turned to the wall.

Photography also features prominently and persuasively in the work of other IADT fine-art graduates, including Patricia Chen's powerfully atmospheric images, Liza Caldwell's portraits of supermarket shoppers, Ann Kavanagh's spatial explorations and Martin Cregg's intelligent exploration of suburbanisation.

It plays an important role in NCAD fine art as well. There, Caroline Tobin has produced a series of fabricated photographic images, blending real and invented, beautifully evoking a night-time journey. Emer O'Boyle explores the conventions of cultural identity in a group of formal family portraits. Eileen Lee's large colour photographs ingeniously equate maritime expanses with the inner spaces of colour field painting and abstraction. Denise Hussey bravely reworks Vermeer, and surprisingly well. In quite a different vein Mona Lisa Remix, in which Jacqui Egan (DIT) reworks the iconic painting as a piece of digital abstraction, is very effective. Aoife Morgan (DIT) depicts the eerie world of the suburbs at night.

IADT's photography-diploma show is outstanding. Elma Murray's extraordinarily detailed portraits of some well-known subjects understandably scooped an award, but let's not forget other exceptional portraiture on offer, including Pamela Bloe's empathic studies of teenagers, Aileen Dillon's composite Conor, Sara Dully's domestica, Edel Slevin's character study and Emelie Lidstrom's brilliant, emotionally charged close-ups of people, forceful images that recall the intensity of Bergman (she also has an eye for landscape).

Daniel White's terrific factory studies nod towards the Bechers but also the cubism of Leger and the utopian dreams of modernism. Laura Mc Gillycuddy's exotic botanical studies are playful takes on the myth of photographic veracity. Among certificate-level students Mark Hill, Barbara Mac Nelis, Iseult O'Brien, Michael Holly, Leanne Keaney, Muirean Brady, Evelyn McNamara and Sinead Cahalan all produce something striking.

There is a distinctly utilitarian quality to IADT's interactive media work, an emphasis on information and education that emerges in such forms as Lucy Devin's evocation of opera from the inside, Stephen Kiernan's putative Dublin Bus guide, Eoghan Carroll's encyclopedic ant study and even the fantastical look at fairies by Denise Nestor. The little people are also a source of fascination for Tara O'Sullivan at NCAD.

NCAD's media graduates have produced some adventurous and ambitious work. Patrick Carty's installation shuffles Groundhog Day-like through a selection of dramatic vignettes in a hotel corridor; Derek Walsh allows us to switch between four - yes, four - invented television channels, all fabricated by him; Amy Walsh abstracts linear contours from a dancing figure to make a three-dimensional piece; Barry Lynch involves the viewer in a group therapy session that is both funny and discomfiting.

Barbara Vasic transforms a space by picking up on our movements; Ian Carter effects a sonic transformation, feeding back our movement in the form of music; Fergus Kelly laments the collapse of history in to a bland, perpetual present. Marina Kessopersadh's low-tech mandala-based installation is extremely effective.

Each year new themes emerge, as if by consensus. Current issues and preoccupations find their way in to the work.Throughout NCAD Dermot Finn's chilly, stylised reworkings of iconic images of brutality and violence set the tone. Shelia Rennick revisits racist lynchings. Magnild Opdoel presents an incongruously bland view of the world as a mindless merry-go-round of copulation and violence.

Suicide, violent death, identity, loss and extreme introspection all feature as thematic concerns.

There are many more individuals whose work is worthy of attention. They include, at NCAD, Eilis Murphy, Stephen Gaughan, Fiona Dowling, Noelle Deay, David Comiskey, Maireád Dunne, Sharon Murphy, Nina Tanis, Lola Rayne Booth (beautifully understated work about memory and place), Barbara Nealon, Vanessa Pine and Catriona Ní Threasaigh; and, at IADT, Mary Nolan, Petra Carter (a very incisive contemporary take on the Vanitas still life), Rachelle Tully (an atmospheric installation on reincarnation), Patrick Maxwell, Bennie Reilly, Paula Lynch (a very good, dark video performance) and Marianne Kelly. In some other cases you felt that the talent and the energy were there but that the timing was wrong. That, as Tara Carr might say, is a limitation built in to the system.

Reviewed: Fine art BA and MA exhibitions, National College of Art and Design, Thomas Street and Digital Hub, Dublin, from tomorrow until June 20th (01-6364200). Fine art and photography exhibitions, Institute of Art, Design & Technology, Dún Laoghaire, until Sunday (01-2144600). Fine art BA exhibition, Dublin Institute of Technology, Portland Row, ends today (01-4023000)