New Kids on the Block: The 2015 NCAD Graduate Exhibition

The final year exhibition is the be all and end all for the modern day art student, and on the 12th of June, 2015, an exhibition of this kind kicked off for the small, hidden away campus of Ireland’s National College of Art and Design (or NCAD as it is better known across the city). This highly anticipated event ran for over a week, showcasing the finely crafted talent of Ireland’s newest artistic force to their predecessors, successors and enthusiasts alike, in an assortment of smaller course-based shows, spread across the bright halls and classrooms of NCAD.

A culmination of four years of hard work, it is a strange anti-climax to have the finale finish up in just a week’s stretch, and even stranger for the presenting students themselves to have four years’ security and familiarity taken away in the same amount of time. Alas, the exhibition serves one of its purposes as the between time separating yesterday’s daily schedule and tomorrow’s uncertainty. It is the final opportunity for the artist to truly express themselves before entering into the unknown of the art world. However, if the exhibition was anything to go by, Ireland best prepare itself for a capable new wave of artistic talent from across a variety of practices, be it Visual Communications, Printmaking or Photography.

It goes without saying: NCAD has, for the past century, had a strong reputation for developing the abilities of Ireland’s most renowned artistic talent, giving it quite a prestigious reputation across Ireland’s art world. It is therefore rather alarming to acknowledge the turmoil the college is currently experiencing, resulting from a selection of financial scandals, minimal confidence in the management and a series of student protests and marches to boot. Amongst the students I have spoken to, all have voiced a similar sentiment: the class of 2015 are the final class to truly benefit from what is presumed by many to be the almost-former glory of NCAD.

Photo by Elsa Brightling, from Womanhood. Model: Sonia Banatowska.

Following the exhibition, I spoke to photographer Elsa Brightling, a fine art media student on her project “Womanhood”. Based around feminist thought and the idea of objectification, “Womanhood” is a self-published magazine which explores the concept of the female nude. Stunningly bold, the project brings the real lives of women to the fore, through a series of beautifully touching portraits of the interviewees, whom release any inhibitions in explaining themselves in the accompanying text. Elsa explained further: “I asked each of the five women who participated to collaborate with me on how they wanted to be portrayed in their nude photo shoots and to imagine themselves in a world where the male gaze is rendered unproblematic. The magazine quickly developed into a safe place where women could talk about important issues from body confidence to periods and censorship of the female form.” She also reflected on her time in NCAD: “Overall, I am really happy I went there, I have to say though I am very relieved I got out of NCAD when I did, being the last of the four year course and with everything going on at the moment with the college and budgets, I wouldn’t want to stick around to see it get worse.”

In any exhibition, the space plays an integral role in forming the piece and, for many of the exhibiting students of the 2015 show, it exists as a substantial piece of the project, not simply used as a background or a setting, but transformed into a work of art in itself

A substantial part of the exhibition was to be found in the design building, where students of such courses as Fine Painting, Printmaking and Sculpture showcased their work. Aaron Smyth, from Fine Art Printmaking, received the 1st Prize in Graphic Studio Dublin’s Graduate Awards for his final year project “The Fragile Nature of Intimacy”. This has afforded him and his NCAD-made collective, “Gum”, many opportunities, including a residency in the RHA and Black Church Printmakers. Working through digital and hand-rendered mediums, Aaron decided to convey the themes of Relations, Emotion, Difficulty and Gender through a series of minimalistic colored prints-palettes which lie on a spectrum between “the twilight and a bruise.” His work is both emotional and provocative, stirring in the viewer a desire to learn more about the complex concepts which lie behind such magnetic pieces.

However, despite Aaron’s success in college, he has no doubts regarding the fragile state of NCAD. Sharing similar views to Elsa, he described the “volatile environment” present in college for the final months and weeks of academic year leading up to the Graduate Exhibition. For Aaron and many of his peers, the severity of the situation has become practically unmanageable, with the relationships between staff/students and the management eroded past the point of no return. He went on to say: “There is a malignant and detrimental force driving change within the college, making decisions without heed to the concerns repeatedly raised and the issues that those decisions have caused. This, along with badly managed accounts, has led to an internal crisis resulting in overcrowding and understaffing.”

From The Fragile Nature of Intimacy by Aaron Smyth

Indeed, the issue of overcrowding has developed into a worrying problem with regards to the future of the Graduate Exhibition itself. By tradition, the exhibition has taken place within the campus of NCAD. Each of the respective courses holds their own shows in the very same rooms they have spent the last four years in, honing their craft and developing as artists. In any exhibition, the space plays an integral role in forming the piece and, for many of the exhibiting students of the 2015 show, it exists as a substantial piece of the project, not simply used as a background or a setting, but transformed into a work of art in itself. There is something special about using NCAD as the space; indeed, it adds a certain sentimental touch to the show, a touch that is felt by all who choose to visit the campus during the week and one that is undoubtedly uncommon in other exhibitions.

For 2015, this tradition found disruption with regards to the Textile Art & Artefact exhibition. Speaking to Louise Gilligan on her project, “Act Your Age”, she expressed her feelings on the show being taken out of the course space in the Design Building and being placed into the Harry Clarke Building, which is primarily used for administration. “The footfall was really disappointing because no one knew we were exhibiting in the building.” Louise went on to say: “Most of the exhibitions were held in the main design building or at least in close proximity of each other. We addressed our concerns about being separate to everyone else before the exhibition but nothing was done about it. However, the college makes you resourceful and the tutors were fantastic in helping us change the studio space to some sort of gallery space.”

In viewing Louise and her peers’ work, it would be unjustified to deny this resourcefulness, Louise herself managing to transform a small corner of the Harry Clarke Building into a pastel-coloured dream. “Act Your Age” is a playful, colourful take on the homes and lives of elderly women, in which the social concept of age as a time of “greyness” is examined, questioned and then thrown out the window. Lying at what she describes as the intersection of photography, art and fashion, Louise shows off her own inventive rendition on a common social subject through everything from multicoloured walkers and floral rain hoods to wallpaper crop-tops. The project culminates in a booklet of “rules” on how to act your age, a satire on the issue of ageism. As Louise demonstrates, inspiration comes from the most unusual, least-thought-of places for the graduating students.

Photo by Louise Gilligan from Act Your Age. Model: Tyrone Gold.
Photo by Louise Gilligan from Act Your Age. Model: Tyrone Gold.

Despite the issues that the college has experienced recently, one would be hard pushed to deny the magnetism of NCAD. A well-established institution of Irish Art, it still manages to exude a certain vitality, which is expressed through the beautiful diversity presented in the Graduate Exhibition. From a wander through the expansive buildings, it is clear to see that these artists have truly come into their own after four years, bringing to Ireland never-before-seen takes on familiar themes and styles, perhaps a consequence of the college’s contemporary leniencies. “Studying in NCAD has had an impact on my work” says Riin Kaljurand, of Fine Art Painting. “I didn’t know much about contemporary art before I came here, when I was a child I studied classical art-drawing, painting and sculpture.”

It is a widely accepted fact that NCAD has fallen on difficult times, with a 94% vote of “no confidence” from the staff and student body expressed against the higher management

It is obvious from viewing Riin’s exhibition, “The Joy of Work”, that this influence has indeed had an impact. On the subject of her graduate pieces, she goes on to say: “My work is inspired by the natural quality of paint. Paint is as flexible as clay and can be used as a sculptural material.” With paint, she has managed to create mesmerizing 3D forms, images that fall off the main body of the painting, and take their place on the walls surrounding, dispelling the myth that a flat surface like a canvas or a plank of wood are needed for a painting.
Despite the differences between the courses of the graduating class, the same ingenuity that Riin works with in her painting is visible amongst her peers, it being clear that these new artists have been trained to explore new and stimulating ways to display their artistic worth, much to the pleasant surprise of the visitor. The use of multimedia has become the name of the game for the graduating students, giving them a means to truly explore the extent of their practice, whether they use magazines, clothing or installation. The once definite lines between practices have become blurred as a result of the new generation that has come and gone through the cogs of Art College, a place where they have had the chance to truly experience the freedom of artistic exploration before they adventure into the outside world once and for all.

From JOY of WORK by Riin Kaljurand.
From JOY of WORK by Riin Kaljurand.

It is a widely accepted fact that NCAD has fallen on difficult times, with a 94% vote of “no confidence” from the staff and student body expressed against the higher management, with Director Declan McGonagall facing intense scrutiny in particular for the problems that the college is experiencing. Curveballs have been thrown at the final year students from left, right and centre, providing them with extra challenges on top of the already difficult task of completing the final year project. Yet, they have somehow managed to overcome these impediments in order to create an exhibition that lives and breathes the exceptional energy that is particular to NCAD. Despite everything that has occurred recently, the college is still working to provide the world with a creative force to be reckoned with.

After leaving the Graduate Exhibition, there are no doubts left about the resilience of these students, they being a strong-willed, ambitious group of young artists ready to dive head first into the next stage of life, leaving the hindrances encountered in college behind. With long-term plans still half-formed, quite like the rest of us graduates, the exhibition has brought the Class of 2015 a fresh start in the world beyond college with regards to residencies, prizes and large-scale public exhibitions alike. The post-college world is one full of opportunities for a selection of students such as these. As for NCAD itself, only time will tell if the grim predictions about its future will come to pass. Perhaps the class of 2015 are the final year to fully benefit from an NCAD education, and perhaps not. The only thing that is for certain, is that the Graduate Exhibition was a staggering success in light of all the past year’s obstacles. With impending difficulties still on the horizon, one can only hope that this summer’s show will have as equally triumphant successors, and that, with time, the college’s many issues will be resolved altogether, so that NCAD may resume its place as a leading institution of Irish art.

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