It was in 1871 that John Ruskin, Oxford’s first Slade Professor, opened his School of Drawing, intending to develop a course for the University that would lead to a degree in art. Originally housed in the University Galleries, the school eventually moved to its current home on the High Street in 1975, where it was christened the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. Since Oxford’s first presentation of Degrees in Fine Art (BFA) in 1981, the school has grown in both scope and reputation, and has nurtured such creatives as John Updike, Shirley Hughes, and Helen Marten, winner of the 2016 Turner Prize. A look at this year’s Prelim Show suggests that the creativity and energy of John Ruskin continues flow through institution that bears his name.
As it is every year, on Friday 1st June to Saturday 2nd the Ruskin School of Art building on the High Street was taken over by the Prelim Show, transformed into an eclectic space showcasing the work of this year’s new fine art students. Free from thematic guidelines or a brief, the exhibition proved to be a thought-provoking and diverse collection of artwork from an exciting group of young creatives. The artwork was spread over three floors, displayed throughout the various studios, along the corridors, and up each staircase. Wherever the eye landed it was met by pieces which covered a myriad of themes and mediums, from striking acrylic portraiture (like the lively and colorful work of Toni Busuttil, pictured right), to experimental film and mixed media pieces. Although busy, however, the space never gave the impression of being cluttered or overwhelming. On the contrary – the proximity of some of the works allowed for striking contrasts to be drawn which added interest to the exhibition as a whole. In the drawing studio on the first floor, for example, the organic forms and natural tones of Moss just grows everywhere, the mixed media work of Sophie Nathan-King, stood alongside a towering pair of 189cm x 100cm digital prints by Ceidra Moon Murphy. These prints, entitled 579C-E2380B and 579C-E2610A, depicted the insides of disassembled iPhones, filled with wax. There was a powerful aesthetic juxtaposition between the vivid greens and oozing text
Another investigation of our relationship with the natural world was discovered on the staircase leading to the second floor – donning a pair of headphones, one was accompanied up the stairs by an audio piece composed of sounds from nature by Helena Greening. These sounds were designed to be listened to alongside the observation her series of small sculptures, entitled Procession and made almost entirely from natural forms found on the moors. Vivified by their natural soundtrack, each sculpture appeared to take on a life of its own, resembling creatures into whose world you seemed to be transported by their audio counterpart.
Greening was not the only artist to play with sound at the exhibition. At the very entrance to the building one was met with the almost hypnotic tones of an edited version of Beyoncé’s ‘Speechless’, selected and modulated by Josiah McNeil until it possessed a deep gravely quality and transposed into an androgynous and ambiguous voice. The disconcerting feeling of uncertainty as to whether these sounds were those of a human or the product of computer generation complemented the artwork of McNeil perfectly. The piece, entitled Selection Criteria, provided another meditation on technology’s role in our world, and on the effects of our almost constant engagement with this phenomenon. On the screen of an iPad placed on the black and white marble tiles of the building, a hand repeatedly swiped right, reminiscent of apps like Tinder. In an interesting moment of simultaneity of modern technology and ancient history, however, the images over which the hand hovered were not those of people, but of rocks and primitive tools. Despite each feeling the same, accessible only on a visual level on the screen, the hand selected which rock was right for them; or, rather, selected every rock as right for them, never once swiping left. While hinting at a loss of individuality amongst the collective, the video work also seemed to comment on the dominance of the aesthetic in the modern world, where the allure of the image overrides functionality.
While hinting at a loss of individuality amongst the collective, the video work also seemed to comment on the dominance of the aesthetic in the modern world, where the allure of the image overrides functionality.
Anna Wyatt’s Cultivating Co. delivered another powerful reflection on the power of a technologically-enabled aesthetic, particularly in its relation to the beauty industry and commercialism. Her installation consisted of a computer beside a number of vials and jars, containing used cotton pads as well as a number of unidentifiable substances. Wyatt collects cotton pads that she has used to remove makeup and transforms them into paper, as well as dedicating a number of them to petri dishes in order to harvest the bacteria which it grows. The products of this harvesting are confined to the vials, which have been photographed and uploaded onto a glossy working website, alongside videos of the processes involved during the creation of her work. The vials and jars, displayed on a sleek ‘Products’ page, can be added to your basket and purchased, passing a thought-provoking comment on the power of an aesthetically pleasing and inviting visual when harnessed by the beauty industry or commercialism more generally. The elegant design of the website make even vials that are literally filled with waste products and bacteria look appealing.
There is something intensely personal about the videos in Wyatt’s installation, which zoom in closely on her face as she takes off the makeup from the day. This places her alongside a number of other artists in the exhibition who engage directly with personal experience and identity. The dynamic Note to Self Series by Erica Nuamah, for example, was composed of over thirty small self-portraits, alongside records from her everyday life such as the charts of crosses that she keeps in order to keep track of her partings when she is braiding her hair. The mixed media portraits have a strong sense of movement, with their fluid lines, daubs of vibrant colour, and their texture provided by raised sections of hot glue giving the impression of bodies constantly in motion. This feeling is enhanced further by the inclusion of a digital projection of a selection of the drawings, flowing from one image to the next and making the impression of movement into a reality.
Another deeply personal and noteworthy section of the exhibition was Sophia Wee Blázquez’s video piece and the painting by which it is accompanied. These pieces, named En el camino a Mirueña sin poder entender todo and Correr las Cintas respectively, provide insights into Blázquez’s mixed-race heritage, and address questions of stereotypes, identity formation, and what it means to belong. The video, taken during a family trip in Spain, shows the humorous challenges of communication between Blázquez, who lives in South London and speaks little Spanish, and her Spanish family members, some of whom speak little to no English. They were on a visit to a tiny Spanish village, the birthplace of her grandparents and now home to fewer than 100 people, in order to bury her grandparents’ ashes. The video snippets are a tender reflection on roots and family ties. Although heartwarming, however, the pairing of this family film with a painting depicting some of the stereotyped assumptions that Blázquez has encountered due to her Spanish and Asian heritage, as well as the suggestion of a search for belonging contained within this image, gives the installation as a whole a poignant atmosphere.
These pieces address questions of stereotypes, identity formation, and what it means to belong.
Across the room was to be found Olivia Allen’s intriguingly-titled Interior Monologue of a Shrimp. Full of bubblegum-pink tones and convoluted shapes, the piece made for a striking statement in the corner of Studio 7. In front of a video of Allen, dressed in bulbous costumes in sickly sweet hues and rolling around a yoga ball, hang the costumes themselves, looking all the more outlandish without a body to inhabit them. Although perhaps amusing for some at first glance, this piece too possesses a deeper and more personal meaning. Speaking to Allen during the show, I listened as she explained elements of the concept behind the work: “I wanted to try to show the experience of being in a body. […] The shapes are chaotic because the body is chaotic! Actually living in a body isn’t like the neat, organized diagrams that you see of skeletons – it’s chaos.” The “hyper-feminine” reds and pinks used within the work are in part a response to the ideas commonly surrounding notions of femininity and a woman’s body, with the distorted forms also reflecting distorted and unrealistic societal views.
I arrived at the Ruskin Prelim Show not knowing entirely what to expect. Wandering through the crowds of chatting art students surrounding the entrance to the building, I had no idea what was awaiting me inside. I was met by work which both challenged and surprised me, by which I was confused, excited, and moved in equal parts. With the almost overwhelming diversity of both subject matter and talent on display, it was the kind of exhibition where I could have stayed for hours, and which made me wish that I’d escaped from the library earlier to spend more time at what was a truly engaging show.