Howard’s End – The CSAD Summer Show

9 Jun

Elaine Begley

I’ve a particular attachment to Cardiff School of Art and Design’s campus at Howard Gardens. Not because I studied there – my alma mater was at Dartington, in Devon; a college that has since amalgamated with Falmouth and moved a further hundred or so miles into the deep, dark wilderness of the West Country. But Howard Gardens was where my partner studied, and every summer since we “became an item” we’ve gone along to the student summer show there.

This year has a particular poignancy, as it’ll be the last CSAD summer show held at Howard Gardens before the school ups roots and moves across the city to the leafier environs of Llandaff. The move seems a shame for a number of reasons. First, Howard Gardens – while definitely in need of a lick of paint here and there – is an excellent building for artists-in-training, filled with workshops, nooks and crannies, and beautifully well-lit studios on the upper floors. Secondly, it’s well-situated, slap bang in the middle of town; whereas Llandaff’s setting is much more quiet…

Pictured: Llandaff, circa 2009

Pictured: Llandaff, circa 2009

Who knows… Perhaps the students will benefit from being somewhere that’s closer to nature and further away from quite so many Wetherspoons. All I do know is that having spent my 3 years at Dartington surrounded by fields and trees, I developed an unhealthy longing for McDonalds, multistorey car parks and graffiti-and/or-urine saturated underpasses.

Anyway… I’m kind of drifting away from the point, here, which was, of course, the CSAD summer show. Like any graduate show, it’s an inevitably hit and miss affair – lots of work by lots of artists of varying abilities – but there are always a handful of gems that make you genuinely optimistic for the future of British art. (Especially in a world in which a recent Martin Creed retrospective, featuring such seminal works as a blob of Blu-Tack stuck to a wall, received nothing but glowing plaudits on the now-defunct Review Show.)

Fucking seriously.

Fucking seriously.

Go to enough of these shows, however, or hark back to your own art school days (if you went to art school), and you’ll realise that certain trends pop up, year after year. Oh… You’ve taken a mould of your own vagina and reproduced it in plaster/plastic/chocolate? Well done, you. That’s one in the eye for phallocentric hegemony. You’ve nailed some bits of wood together and have them jutting out of the walls at funny angles? Yes… That really makes me reconsider this “space”.

But I’m being cruel. If you were born in 1993, and thus didn’t study at Dartington in the late 1990s or attend the last 5 or 6 CSAD summer shows, perhaps you’ve no idea that you’re not the first artist to serve up vaginas or bits of wood.

For me, though the overall standard of work this year was very high (even the plaster vaginas looked good, en masse) there were four real stand-outs. Beth Marriott’s exquisitely detailed matchbox tableaux, based on the ailing memories of her grandmother, are just stunning and packed full of detail. I only wish I’d had more time to look at them.

Elaine Begley has crafted wax cubes, each one filled with layers of detritus, that manage to be both a little bleak (they look like polluted ice cores dug up in the distant future) and very beautiful. Placed on a grid of pedestals they were visually striking and endlessly fascinating.

Pic by me

Pic by me

I do love a good, tactile, hands-on installation, and James George’s Brecon Beacons Project ticked all of those boxes. Set in a large chest of draws, the artist has carried out lengthy research; photographing, documenting and taking samples of material from the Brecon Beacons, before producing his own rough-hewn paper and notebooks, as well as perspex artworks based on the results. Like Marriott’s matchboxes, it’s a work I wish I could have spent more time looking at, as I felt I was only able to scratch the surface.

My personal star of this year’s summer show, however, was painter Helen Bur. Without realising it, I’d actually seen a number of her works before. She has painted giant murals in and around Roath, and exhibited at Milgi’s Art in the Warehouse, but her paintings on show at the CSAD are just exceptional. Reminiscent of Gerhard Richter’s portraits and character studies in their hazy, but almost photographic focus, I could have spent the whole day staring at them. Absolutely stunning.

The Leader by Helen Bur

The Leader by Helen Bur

Perhaps the best thing about the CSAD summer show is that you’re given no idea which students will be rewarded with the highest marks for their efforts. You might be able to work one or two out for yourself, but – unless you have a loved one exhibiting and are a bit biased – you really are free to pick your favourites, with no pressure to like any particular style. The artists are unknowns, without the weight and baggage of famous names that can make first-time gallery-goers feel obliged to like a certain work which, otherwise, they’d be quite indifferent to. As Grayson Perry pointed out in last year’s Reith Lectures, all galleries should have a sign over the door saying, “You don’t have to like everything”. A student summer show does more or less exactly that.

Having gone through the art school system, I can say this is probably for the better. The year I graduated, the vaginas received the only First Class Honours on the entire course.

The CSAD Summer Show is on at Howard Gardens until Friday 13th June.

The image at the top of the page is Elaine Begley’s own photo of her work Tranquility.

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8 Responses to “Howard’s End – The CSAD Summer Show”

  1. Sean K June 10, 2014 at 11:24 am #

    Great review and I agree with most of the sentiments! Though I wouldn’t dare criticise this year’s preponderence of vaginae myself! Beth’s matchboxes and Elaine’s wax cubes were indeed a standout.

  2. thedaillew June 10, 2014 at 11:33 am #

    Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it!

  3. Aneurinsanders June 10, 2014 at 3:03 pm #

    i think you missed out a few of the more challenging works and gone with the works with the most information.

    • thedaillew June 10, 2014 at 3:14 pm #

      Thanks for reading! It’s entirely possible that I missed out on some great work – that’s the problem with a big show with so many artists when you don’t have limitless time to look around. But I don’t know about going “with the works with the most information”. I tend not to read artists’ statements unless a work has already caught my attention, mainly because I think an artwork should primarily stand up on its own – if it has to be explained almost entirely in prose, the prose is the work, not the painting/video/installation etc. The works I’ve listed here caught my attention as visual objects, and the more I looked at them or explored them, the more interesting they became.

    • thedaillew June 10, 2014 at 3:17 pm #

      PS – If you can think of any artists whose work I should check out, please share. I might even have a chance between now and Friday to go back for another look!

  4. Butch June 10, 2014 at 3:40 pm #

    What an interesting review. It didn’t read hipster or bitchy at all. I can only assume if the only first with honours in your year was vagina centric, you were the cunt who won it, or do we assume your work wasn’t that good? Seeing you are writing a blog, I guess the latter? Maybe next degree show where you use it as a forum of self important entertainment, you could give credit to the artist you’re slating with an image of their work or hyperlink to their website? Quite impressive that you would criticise someone’s work so cavalier when they are just starting out and raw about their work. (Doctor Who books and and Torchwood? Just like Hemingway or Steinbeck?)

    • thedaillew June 10, 2014 at 3:52 pm #

      Well, you’re just adorable.

      • Butch June 10, 2014 at 4:12 pm #

        I know!

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