There’s always something seductive about the Edinburgh College of Art degree show, with the grand sculpture court and airy, high-ceilinged studios - contrasting with the rather more cramped conditions at Glasgow or Dundee. This year, the new graduates have more than lived up to their surroundings, many producing work of a standard not usually seen from students.
Kevin Harman’s work has already made headlines, after the police took interest in his piece Love Thy Neighbour. Harman nicked 200 doormats from the burghers of Broughton, leaving a note advising householders to ask the folk next door about their disappearance, later explaining that the mats had been appropriated in the name of art.
This might sound like student high-jinks, but the prompting of neighbourly conversations suggests a serious purpose behind an apparent prank.
Katherine Ive investigates the emotional content of property, too, offering a moving essay on grief in the form of a sturdy brick wall, bashed through to reveal leaking - or weeping - pipes. Less easy to read is Michael Brown, building the top third of a church, which has landed in the gallery accompanied by an empty greatcoat, one arm pointing ominously. There are buildings everywhere in fact, from Mark Purves’s smooth, Pepto-Bismol pink logs, stacked beside plans for a cabin; to pebble-dashed wooden palettes by Liam Richardson, a flatpack evocation of suburbia. Other sculptors take a turn for the sinister. Emily Snell drizzles thick white goo through the plug-hole of a hospital gurney, planting bronze casts of her teeth in the resulting mess, while Gwenda Thompson Marchesi presents a life-sized donkey being pulled by unseen forces into a mirror, the illustration of a grisly fairy tale.
At Edinburgh, the word tapestry has lost its traditional meaning, and now seems to be a command issued to students to do whatever the hell they like. Just so long as it’s not tapestry.
Anna Robbins makes rather sickly work with food, allowing ice to melt through the toes of a stocking on to a perfect disc of white flour, cooking up a milk jelly and placing it over a heater, and setting dough to rise on a table. There’s something strangely nostalgic about these pieces, and very sad. This is not the norm here, though, with most graduates of the tapestry department displaying irreverent wit or a taste for childlike wonder.
Joanne Sykes has laid a precise trail of red pencils, which snakes its way past her peers’ installations. It’s hard to tell whether this is a generous gesture, proudly guiding visitors to the work of others, or something altogether more aggressive. Joanne Smithers’s wearable sculptures include a motorbike helmet with a huge animal horn, and a pair of horse legs, hinting at a new sport that’s unlikely to catch on. Michael A C Jackson’s box of tricks is a delight: he has come up with a Heath Robinson contraption that, when a ballbearing is dropped into a slot, plays a dolorous little tune.
A contrariness seems to have afflicted the painters too, with many of the best avoiding painting altogether. Alice Ladenburg has invented a satirical new world, complete with its own pantheon of secular saints. Tourists in this invented land can visit a religious retreat (it’s a shed, with stained-glass windows) or splurge on tea towels, mugs and commemorative plates at the gift shop.
Nika Kupyrova’s world is less welcoming, with furniture smashed up, reconfigured and laid next to grubby tanks full of liquids of unknown origin.
The painters who actually do paint and draw are strong, too. Stephanie Straine has done a wonderfully ordered, minimalist wall drawing, full of restraint. Antonia Gallacher has collected pebbles, arranging them in museum-like vitrines, replacing some with precise, pseudo-scientific sketches. Morag Macdonald, meanwhile, restricts herself to geometric forms, or simple cross-hatching, laboriously building up finicky fields of lines.
Charlie Billingham goes in for a complex fusion of art historical tropes and imagery appropriated from advertising and packaging. He takes on the guise of Warhol’s screenprinted Elvis, mounted on a hoarding outside the ECA building, glibly reworks a packet of Love Hearts to read “Love Hurts”, and offers a new washing powder, Abstrakte Kunst Concentrate.
Steven Harrison also displays an ambivalence toward high and low culture alike in his text-based paintings, piling up apparently unrelated words, listing stock phrases, and inviting viewers to accept his winking interpretation of a rubbish, Magritte-referencing painting of a lemon, delivered in uproariously florid art-speak.
There’s some strong stuff on show here, then, and, while it’s not a competition, Edinburgh’s new crop of artists this year seem to have the edge over their peers at the other Scottish schools.