Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Then and Now: Graduate Art and Design Exhibition, Banbury Museum, Oxfordshire (25 June-16 July 2011)

I have to confess that my expectations were low when I entered a small, badly lit gallery at the back of Banbury Museum which was showcasing this year’s art and design graduates from Oxfordshire School of Creative Arts.  Fourteen graduates were featured and covered the range of courses at the school - Fine Art, Graphic Design and Illustration, Design Crafts and Photography.

The Fine Art Department was ably represented by two painters showing great promise – Annabel Windor* with her street scenes series and Tricia Brant’s portraits*.   I could see their future work easily featured in the BP Portrait Award or Threadneedle Prize.

However, it was the work of graduates from the BA (Hons) Graphic Design and Illustration course which really stood out.  Olivier Porte’s campaign raising awareness on Alzheimer’s for a research institute in Paris was haunting and poignant and thankfully lacked naivety or heavy-handedness.  His sepia-toned TV advertisement “Everything I ever knew is gone” was very touching and really should be broadcast immediately.

In stark contrast in mood, but by no means lacking in complexity or sophistication, Alix Jeambrun’s witty “Food & Memory” fabric and stitch work and Libby Cramp’s “Souvenirs & Memories” collages celebrating her love of adventure and travel dominated the space.

There was some work on display which unfortunately wasn’t as strong as these artists and are unlikely to progress much further in their art career.  I do not know if the Oxfordshire School of Creative Arts participates in London’s yearly Free Range Art & Design Show for graduates, but I hope that it does because the strongest of these young graduates deserve much better exposure than the Banbury Museum has given them.

** My apologies if surnames are wrong, I could not read my own handwriting on my notes - very unproffessional and embarrassing so definitely won't happen again!

Immortal Coil, Jeannelise Edelsten, Berkhampsted School, Berkhamsted, Herts (27 June-1 July 2011)

Tucked away in a meeting room within the west wing of a prestigious private school in Berkhamsted, where Graham Greene once studied and whose leafy grounds and Gothic buildings would sit comfortably in a scene from a Harry Potter film, “Immortal Coil” is the culmination of a year’s residency at the School by artist Jeannelise Edelsten.

I first saw Edelsten’s work many years ago when she had just finished the first year of a higher national diploma in art.  Her piece, “For the Greater Good”, instantly grabbed my attention and stood out as being far superior to the rest of the students’ work.  A beautifully ugly handmade wooden cabinet with rusting door and what appeared to be aged identity cards, tackled monumental ideas around torture and murder.  Having seen attempts by many first year art students who fail miserably to produce successful pieces when grappling with the duel problem of finding their own visual language and choosing major and universal issues, the confidence and power of execution of Edelsten’s work made a more than refreshing change.  I did worry that her individuality and development might be stifled in an institution that was ill-equipped for students wishing to explore any form of installation or large scale sculptural work and was a little disappointed to see her work become smaller and smaller when I returned to each subsequent end of year show to see how she was doing.

However, her commitment to her artistic journey since that time and her unquestionable craftsmanship which flourishes in her work, continue to impress.  I love her exacting attention to detail, ability to combine materials to their greatest visual effect as well as the level of patience required to make her series pieces and I have featured her work in two exhibitions I have curated.

Equally skilled in printmaking, Edelsten combines the use of the medium alongside manipulating ceramics to explore notions of displacement, which is at the core of her working pratice.  As a French national, she sees the cracks which appear in her work as a metaphor for the resilience she has needed to integrate and adapt to English life.

“Immortal Coil” is a quiet, contemplative exhibition and reflects her total immersion in the School during here residency – its history, its architecture and the lives of the students currently there.  The School’s extensive archive became a rich source of inspiration.  Along with some examples of her preparatory sketches and initial watercolour studies, twenty-three small, square paintings using cloth, casting slip and varnish on wood sat on glass shelves on the floor, propped up by vintage books.  Each painting is a symbolic interpretation and representation of the School’s House system.  House names such as “Loxwood”, “Ashby” and “Old Stede” become codified and morph into organic symbols borne from a combination of Edelsten’s imagination and fascination of genetics.  In some, a heavy dose of word play and humour can also be seen.

The paintings were complemented by a series of twenty-three camera-less photographs using fibre-based photographic paper which seem like aerial architectural photographs and a further twenty-three porcelain objects, further manipulations and representations of the House symbols.

The most interesting aspect of the exhibition for me was how a set of wooden drawers were used to display the individual porcelain House pieces.  The combination of materials and placement and display of the drawers themselves evoked a strong sense of academia, antiquity and a love of collection and conservation, themes which have also appeared in Edelsten’s early work and which fit and adapt perfectly to her residency at the School.

By her own admission, Edelsten’s career as an artist is a constant struggle for time and creative autonomy with the demands of family and financial commitment.  After nearly six years of studying and exhibiting in local galleries and spaces, she sees this residency as an important indication of the success of her endeavours to date.  Berkhamsted School has bought the entire series of paintings to permanently display in one of its public rooms.  Many of the individual photographs and ceramic pieces have also been sold.  Edelsten is satisfied that the body of work she has produced during her residency successfully maintains the integrity of the ideas and concerns which underline her working practice as well as adapting and evolving within framework of the residency.  I am inclined to agree with her.