EXHIBITIONS: The Future's Bright, but Is It Art?

By Hilton, Tim | The Independent (London, England), August 17, 1997 | Go to article overview
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EXHIBITIONS: The Future's Bright, but Is It Art?


Hilton, Tim, The Independent (London, England)


The "New Contemporaries" exhibitions are annual showcase events for art students and recent graduates. These anthologies of bright new work are usually pleasant entertainment. Occasionally the atmosphere has been spoilt by theorists or political activists, but the general rule is that anarchism and good humour win the day. I thought that last year's "New Contemporaries" was a little too professional, with too many post- graduates and some chillingly serious abstraction. The 1997 version has a better spirit. Visitors to the Camden Arts Centre will find nothing profound and, God be praised, nothing that aims at profundity.

The tone of the exhibition is light, throwaway, inventive and cheeky. There's not much in the way of traditional painting and sculpture. I like the three paintings by Katherine McKee (Glasgow School of Art). One is made from black dots. The others, which are more successful, are composed of parallel black lines running horizontally from one edge of the picture to the other. There are a few bits of colour, but basically these are black-line paintings. As so often, one wonders at the magic nature of painting as an art form. Just some black stripes on the canvas. We have seen such things many times before. Yet individual personality can emerge within minimal formats. One feels McKee's character. It's also obvious that these are the paintings of a young person. If she's still painting in her maturity we may have a formidable new Scottish artist.

I write "if" because so many art students of the 1990s decide that they'll give art a go for a couple of years and that, if they don't make it big, then they'll switch to something else. The notion of a lifetime's vocation has disappeared, so that much publicity for student shows is misconceived. Punters are always invited to spot the great art stars of the future. In truth, future household names have not been part of the "New Contemporaries" exhibition since the 1960s. That's because new art has become so expendable and also because art-school graduates easily find the music and entertainment industries. Hence the feeling in the Camden show of a youthful multiplicity of skills that could be used in quite different areas, not just displayed in an art gallery. Student photography, for instance, has recently become much more confident and professional. A sign of this new expertise is the way that photographers handle colour on a large scale, influenced, I suspect, by advertising. Camerawork is turning away from intimacy, portraiture and reportage - a pity, for we could do with a new generation of photojournalists. It's Great Outdoors by Jemima Brown (Chelsea College of Art) is a panoramic shot of two young people quite at odds with the Wiltshire countryside. They seem to be longing to get back on the motorway. Seamus Nicholson's nocturnal visions (Royal College of Art), carefully devised and smoothly printed, record his generation and its pleasures. Aftermath is about litter after some rave. Megatripolis records a club scene, cleverly hinting at hellish activities. Here's a photo that is bound to unsettle parents, perhaps by intent. A bit more humour from the photographers would be welcome. By contrast, the artists who use video have a lighter touch than usual. Normally one enters the darkened cubicles in those exhibitions with foreboding. Video is a cumbersome medium, it often requires sound effects to make it more interesting and it's fatally prone to repetition.

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