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Down a small side street off Brick Lane, Goldsmiths art students have been provoking gallery goers yet again. Level 2 Fine Art & Art History students recently mounted their first mid-programme exhibition ‘The Middle’ in March 2014 at The Rag Factory, an affordable studio complex off Brick Lane near Aldgate East underground. The shadowy cleavage on their invitation is as seductive as the entrance to their space in the ‘Apricot Gallery’, a hairpin turn down a dark passage. In their press release they bait the media, wondering if it’s time for a new movement of young artists in London. Time to shake things up a bit.
Goldsmiths has long been producing artists whose keen ambition and acute self-awareness lead to innovation and even upheaval. Dr Richard Noble, current head of the Department of Visual Art, believes it’s ‘crucial to see art as a continuing, transformative and transnational undertaking’ within a contemporary public world. This attitude of inclusion and inquiry exemplifies Goldsmiths’ view that contemporary art is best taught through participation with artists, curators and writers, and practical and critical engagement with academic and arts professionals.
Goldsmiths students have spacious studios and enjoy open access to extensive product design and technology. They are, however, expected to drive their own progress both intellectually and creatively. No sitting back waiting to be given an agenda or taught what to make. As a result, the Goldsmiths hot house boasts over 20 Turner Prize winners and a crowd of illustrious alumni including such influential artists as Lucien Freud, Antony Gormley and Bridget Riley. Now with almost 500 undergraduates, Goldsmiths School of Art is well known for its sophistication in creativity and culture. On the Saatchi Gallery website, Goldsmiths Department of Art declares its aims: ‘We challenge. We question. We transform’.
Goldsmiths: A brief history
In 1891 London’s Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths began offering technical training in a former Naval college at New Cross for the promotion of ‘skill, knowledge, health and general well-being among men and women of the industrial, working and artisan classes’. Joining the University of London in 1904, the new School of Art opened three years later in purpose-built facilities designed by British architect Sir Reginald Blomfield. Until the outbreak of the Second World War, Goldsmiths steadily expanded its enrolment, developing its reputation as a leading institute for teacher training. At the onset of the war, the faculty and students were temporarily relocated to the University of Nottingham. This proved a prudent move as in December 1940 the New Cross site was almost entirely destroyed by incendiary bombs during the air raids of London.
Following the war an extended period of rebuilding and expansion continued steadily through to the early 1960s. By this time Goldsmiths was well established in teacher qualifications and social sciences. The 1960s saw a rapid increase in enrolment with a renewed focus on arts and humanities. Many original buildings were renovated and expanded while a number of new facilities were purchased to accommodate the fast-growing degree-level programmes. Many of these facilities are now protected with Grade II Listed building status by English Heritage.
Damien Hirst and the ‘young British artists’
The global recession of the 1980s saw many private galleries and public arts venues withdraw funding and close their doors. Undergraduate art students faced a stark future without opportunities to develop and exhibit their work. In the late 1980s Goldsmiths art students thus turned to increasingly unconventional alternatives. Without the protocols and restraints of gallery representation or programme funding, they embraced an exuberant provocation of both art markets and spectators alike.
Led by Damien Hirst in 1988, while still in his second year of a Goldsmiths BA degree, 16 students participated in ‘Freeze’, the first of a number of artist-run shows that continued through the 1990s. Consciously imitating collector Charles Saatchi’s recently opened gallery in St John’s Wood, ‘Freeze’ artists mounted an exhibition calculated to attract attention by producing a show of unexpectedly high design in addition to a show catalogue, an unusual undertaking for students of any programme. Although ‘Freeze’ didn’t immediately gain widespread media coverage, it established the key players and underlying principles of a new approach to visual arts and gallery practices.
Further shows, combined with the public antics of the artists, quickly drew an international audience to these young artists’ work and their reputations. Factory and warehouse spaces, empty shop fronts and abandoned offices became the venues for self-funded, self-curated exhibitions. Key works from this time came to typify their provocative attitude. Most notably, Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, encasing a shark preserved in formaldehyde, and Tracey Emin’s My Bed, an unmade bed surrounded by drifts of the artist’s intimately personal debris, made headlines at the time and continue to fuel controversy and debate regarding the nature and validity of contemporary art and artists.
The group eventually gained international recognition as the ‘young British artists’ group, with a 1992 article by Michael Corris published in the US magazine, ArtForum. In 2007 Michael Craig-Martin, who taught many of these artists at Goldsmiths, referred to their initial success as ‘a combination of youthful bravado, innocence, fortunate timing, good luck and, of course, good work’.
This is the inheritance that Goldsmiths current art students knowingly accept in mounting ‘The Middle’ in 2014 in a small space off Brick Lane.
In choosing the title for this exhibition, their first show, these students acknowledge that their work is in progress as well as the more subtle tension that both binds and stretches them across their widely disparate pursuits. Trying things out, seeing what works, how well and in what situations is a central element evident in their studio practice as well throughout this exhibition. They speak directly to the viewer through a visual language of images and physical materials, social and cultural references. The artists in ‘The Middle’ confidently mine the eccentricities of their own identities and specific histories to create works reflective of an increasingly global culture.
Titles of individual artworks allow space for multiple interpretations without dictating meaning. These artists are going to have to find a new language of the object as metaphor in order to stage an upheaval in contemporary art equal to their predecessors, whose work presumed an audience as canny, self-aware and irreverent as themselves. There were no sharks in ‘The Middle’ – but they’re just getting started.
Too often are works of Conceptual Art undervalued in the public view as being inaccessible and obscure, reserved exclusively for those with advanced study. The works in this show aptly demonstrate just how approachable, ingenious and engaging Conceptual art can be, especially presented in such a spirit of affable good humour. They wink at you as a partner in crime. They share the inside joke and invite you to appreciate a lighter side of a deeper truth couched in colour, light and form, leaving the viewer with a sense of having been through a cultural vortex hidden down the labyrinthine side streets of Brick Lane.
Up-and-coming young artists
Victor Auslander describes his affinity with filmmaker Paulo Pasolini in his Head Nest, a close community of mythically grotesque terracotta portraits jostling together and scrambling to overcome one another.
Shambhavi Bhat invites viewers to leave their own traces at ‘Ghar’, a shrine in situ addressing women’s culture and safe spaces. Sarah Blum’s installation of wire, glass and concrete blocks speaks of the cognitive fragments of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Stacey Cole creates a metaphor of transience, grief and mourning through the immediacy of gestural marks in monotype. Rebecca Connolly delights in fleshy and physical organic biology in her sweeping tableaux of surface and transparency.
Chris Gray explores the spectatorship of boxing through a sculptural/video installation providing everything that is missing from real life: defined rules, a clear winner and loser and the direct links between conflict and outcome.
Helen Hamilton’s sensitivity to materials and 3D composition in space, form, texture, colour and balance invokes both balance and imbalance in saturated intensity. Halo Hughes presents a mystery of anthropomorphic forms in counterpoint to the normality of common chairs. Michal Huss maps personal identity as political necessity constructed through the politics of representation in the conflict of Israel and Palestine.
Alice Jump’s outstanding photograph series titled ‘I Heart Marge’ conjure Cindy-Sherman-esque self portraiture of her father’s mistress of 40 years. Alice’s photographs inhabit the ‘Other Woman’s’ secret life, which is at once a dreadful secret and a very public family elephant in the room. Melinda Lauw creates soundscapes of an intimacy so sharply tactile the skin sings.
Melissa Magnuson’s ‘Black and White’ explores racial identity through the narrow channels of received party lines vividly depicting the expectations, world view and relationships with those we perceive as different from ourselves. Valery Steinberg examines the universal continuity of nature through a detailed examination of natural form in microcosmic traces. Elvis Wang breaks down conventions of painting by creating 3D trompe l’oeil objects on canvas. His works The Drain and Super Painting reveal a buoyant sense of humour that plays directly on the viewer’s awareness of the nature of painting as an object.
The show was only open for three days, blink and you missed it. Pity really but they’re just getting started. Can’t wait for their graduate show in 2015.