In the postmodern art world, higher education institutions have increasingly abandoned technical skills in favor of conceptual innovation. In London, art schools that pride themselves on technical excellence are a scarce commodity.
There are a number of reasons for this. In the 20th century, artists began to question the role of art in society. Many have sought to get rid of the “art” and “decoration” equation. Before that, much of the artistic production in the West had been used to adorn the sacred interiors of churches or to hang on the walls of the rich and famous merchants who commissioned it. Other artists have gone further, not only by questioning the purpose of art, but by questioning the very notion of art itself (previously defined narrowly by its medium – painting, drawing or sculpture). In the 1970s, a proliferation of radical art practices emerged, many of which sought to break away from the past and decommission art as something that could be bought or sold. Land art, performance art and body art were some of the by-products that emerged from this era.
As this spirit of rebellion spread, arts education invariably began to change. In the United Kingdom, art schools have gradually become less and less interested in manufacturing craftsmanship, preferring to judge the quality of a work on the strength of its theoretical foundations. As a result, most of London’s top art schools purposely do not teach technical skills as part of their fine arts degrees (although technicians are usually available on hold when technical input is required). Internationally renowned schools such as Goldsmiths, Chelsea College of Art and Design, and Central St Martins have all jumped on the anti-skills train.
On the other hand, City & Guilds of London Art School (C&G) attaches great importance to the workmanship and the quality of the finish. On its website, and somewhat unusual for a contemporary art college, C&G describes its art course as “prioritizing the basis of the practice of craftsmanship and respecting the value of tradition as a dynamic force rather than conservative “.
Perhaps one of the reasons C&G has been successful in thwarting the mainstream is that it operates as an independent charitable trust. This allowed C&G to survive as an example of that dying breed of small, self-sustaining art colleges that once characterized the London art scene before many of them were merged into large universities. Compare C&G to the University of the Arts in London (UAL), which is a good example of the (opposite) trend towards consolidation in the higher education sector. (UAL is a collegiate university, which consists of six constituent colleges – Camberwell, Central St Martins, Chelsea, London College of Communication, London College of Fashion and Wimbledon. UAL is also Europe’s largest university for the arts and design).
But, does size really matter, or does technique matter more? C&G says its small, intimate atmosphere is what sets it apart from the rest of the pack. This has allowed C&G to establish and maintain a generous student / teacher ratio, which ensures that students receive much higher doses of tutor contact time than they would at a larger institution like the ‘UAL (where in some art classes undergraduates may consider themselves lucky if they meet with a tutor more than twice a month).
In addition, the effect of C & G’s policy to promote tutor-student interaction has not gone unnoticed in the media. In April 2011, Modern Painters (magazine) used a survey it conducted of art professionals to create a list of the UK’s top 10 art schools: C&G was ranked third, after the Royal College of Art (ranked first) and the Royal Academy of Art (ranked second). Remarkably, C&G was the only school offering undergraduate and postgraduate courses to secure a place in the top three (RCA and RAA are postgraduate-only colleges).
So it was not without curiosity that we ventured into the C&G Fine Arts Fair. Our first impressions? C&G’s emphasis on manufacturing know-how undoubtedly reflects on the physical quality of the work, which was executed very well. The presentation was also very professional – much more than the other diplomas we have seen this year. Each artist’s exhibit was accompanied by a full set of business cards, postcards, an artist statement, and a price list.
Overall, however, we found the conceptual quality of the art to be less impressive. Somewhat disappointingly, much of the work on display perhaps felt like it was playing a little too cautiously, sticking a little too much to the rules, somehow missing out on that special spark that is vital to the cornerstone of great art.
Nonetheless, some of the highlights were as follows:
Chloe Leaper, Plains of passage, 2012 (detail) (needles, pins, nylon thread and pencil lines)
Leaper’s sculptural “drawings” question the distinction between the mental (intangible) and the physical (material realm). His work mixes two-dimensional and three-dimensional elements that allow the viewer’s attention to rest in them.
Juliette Mahieux, Oracles, 2012 (oil on canvas)
Mahieux’s paintings are inspired by his classical training at the Spinelli Institute of Art and Restoration in Florence. In the images shown here, two meticulously painted female nudes are depicted against a floral background, reminiscent of the intricate designs of artisans such as William Morris. Breaking with the Renaissance tradition that inspires Mahieux’s art, each character holds a disembodied head, thus creating a somewhat surreal effect.
Jatinder Singh Gill, Parallax, 2012 (installation view) (mixed media)
Gill trained as an architect and as a result created a hybrid studio practice that integrates elements of art and architecture. In Parallax, the artist tries to translate the double process of construction and stripping. Rusted toolboxes, carefully laid bricks and semi-architectural forms are placed side by side to communicate humanity’s personal archaeological origin and its displacement in the built environment that characterizes contemporary cities.
Richard Crawford, Urban Birds, 2012 (installation view) (mixed media)
In real life, Crawford is passionate about birding. In his art, he seeks to emphasize the need for their conservation. Whether he places bird prints inside a wooden cabin or creates three-dimensional bird sculptures and places them on plastic and other man-made materials, the artist seeks to represent birds as a neighboring species in the urban landscape that man has created. .
Words and images: Carla Raffinetti © Artlyst
With the exception of images by Chloe Leaper, Juliette Majieux © City & Guilds of London Art School