ART / Fresh art and painters new: The best of today's student work is on show in Islington. But is it art? Dalya Alberge and Iain Gale asked six experts to show them round the exhibition and justify their private views; plus reader offer

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The Independent Culture
Three Against

THE MUSEUM DIRECTOR

John Hayes, director of the National Portrait Gallery:

Hayes visited 'Fresh Art' while students were still setting up the show and when probably only half the exhibits were on display. Allowing for that, he commented, 'From what I see, there is not a great deal to uplift, not a great deal of beauty, not a great deal of wit; quite a lot that seems pointless and pretentious. No one especially needs statements about the violence, ugliness and banality of the world around us unless it is expressed with the force of a Goya, a Daumier or a Bacon.'

When Hayes stopped to gaze at a work it was rarely in admiration. 'There is absolutely nothing to say about it,' he said, walking away from Malum, a glass wall-hung cabinet displaying four shrivelled apples in various stages of decay.

Outside, Legion, a roundabout of iron baths by Gavin O'Curry (Winchester School): Hayes asked, 'Do they get marks for effort?'

There was a sense of relief as he found a handful of works he liked - among them, a Balthus-like interior by Chris Mockridge (University of Wolverhampton) and Leaf Form, an abstract by Jenny Watts (Hertfordshire College), whose suggestive series of shapes caught his eye.

Coming to the Cheltenham stand, he stopped at three figures, ungainly versions of Degas's dancers. 'There are two kinds of talent: spiritual and technical. These figures don't seem to have either.' He criticised art schools for not teaching draughtsmanship, perspective or basic technique and said he was rather relieved to be getting back to the National Portrait Gallery. 'Portraiture is an artform which has to be accessible to the viewer.'

THE ACADEMIC

Jennifer Fletcher is senior lecturer at the Courtauld Institute, specialising in Venetian Renaissance art:

Fletcher found presentation at Fresh Art a problem. She would have liked more detailed labelling on each student and their work. Otherwise, she pointed out, 'what is the viewer meant to make of plaster casts of a calculator and a bulb in a box, as on the Polytechnic South West stand?'

She also observed that several works reflected the exhibitions students must have visited. There were a number inspired by Damien Hirst: Tara Rafill (Byam Shaw) had stacked a series of shelves with jars filled with various rotting objects. 'Pretty repellent,' Fletcher said, 'though it's probably meant to be.' While insisting that she is not a traditionalist and does not expect all art to be applied from the end of a paintbrush, she said: 'The iconography is too simple. It leaves me cold.' Rachel Hayward's jelly sculpture (Winchester School) also elicited a 'Yuk'. Yet Fletcher was nearly always generous enough to find something positive to say. 'This artist might be better in ceramics,' she suggested. Looking at a sculpture by Josephine Thom - a glass-topped domestic freezer filled with various frozen tools - she ventured: 'Artists like this would make good ad men.'

Wondering whether teachers at Central St Martin's should have let Amanda Francis get away with showing only an untitled man's jacket covered with plastic baby-bottle teats, she stressed the importance for students of learning traditional as well as alternative languages. 'That is the duty of art school teachers,' she said. 'The idea that they're artists here is phoney.'

THE AUCTIONEER

Paul Whitfield, deputy chairman of Bonhams:

Cass Wedd's Fitting In, three sets of clothes-hangers labelled 'fat', 'hugely fat' and 'obese' (Central St Martin's) made Whitfield roar with laughter. So did Neil Broughton's tower-like assemblage of found objects including feather and motor (Dartington). 'It fulfils one of the functions of art,' he said. 'To amuse.' Yet within seconds, the joke had worn thin. 'It's like a water-ice: the enjoyment begins to pall.'

We wandered over to an egg-glass-shaped floor piece covered with some slimy solution on the University of Wolverhampton stand. 'Ugh,' he gasped. 'The acid is eating through it. It'll probably self-destruct. No great loss.'

We turned next to the untitled Damien Hirst-like piece by Tara Rafill (Byam Shaw), jars with various decaying objects on a metal shelving-system. 'No skill whatsoever,' he said. 'Anyone can do this.' He stressed the importance of students being taught basic skills before they can break the rules in this way.

Looking at a sculpture by Vanessa Jeanne Daws (Newcastle Polytechnic) - a chest of drawers with handbags encrusted with jelly-like sweets and plastic creepies - he said 'You don't want to go on being rude, but it's so infantile. The sort of thing my children do at primary school. Oh dear, I'll be in trouble now.'

'Let's find something we can like,' he said with determination. It was not that difficult. Whitfield estimated that 10 per cent of the show is good. He was stopped in his tracks by Mary McAleer's stunning self-portrait (Manchester) and a still-life by Lynda Marwood (Loughborough). 'I'd like to see more of her work in two or three years' time.'

Three For

THE COLLEGE PRINCIPAL

William Callaway is principal of Chelsea School of Art:

Callaway displayed an infectious enthusiasm: 'The fascinating thing about a show like this is that it shows how the different activities have been opened up.' We walked across to a wood sculpture made up of gargoyle-like figures, Archetype II, by Mujeeb Bhati from Central St Martin's. 'I like this,' said Callaway. 'The technical quality is quite astonishing. There is a lot of figurative work here alongside some absolutely conceptual statements. That I find very encouraging. In general, I think that before you say whether art schools are achieving their purpose you have to define that purpose. Are they simply for training artists or do they contribute to the intellectual pool available to the country? In my opinion, although we are there to produce artists, we must always accept that we also produce people who will never make their way as artists - we are not producing failed painters but highly educated individuals who turn up in all sorts of exciting positions. We are prepared to acknowledge that the activity that students engage in can be as wide as the range of possibilities of the human mind.' He took me to Rubecca, the huge strawberry essence-impregnated polystyrene doll by Jim Doyle from Chelsea. 'I've seen this at different stages of its creation,' he said admiringly. 'It's a comment on how you can produce something totally unexpected, and in relatively cheap materials, which still addresses your perception of reality quite powerfully but on a scale that justifies that student coming to the college and also the amount of money invested. We've moved away from producing students who are just clones of their teachers. And on that basis I think our art schools are in a very good state.'

THE AUCTIONEER

Graham Southern is a director of Christie's Modern British Picture department:

Southern was impressed: 'Out of context you might easily be unaware whether some of the works here were by fully fledged artists or students in their early years.' We were considering an abstract by Linda Smith (St Alban's). 'She paints rather nicely but she's obviously looking at some of the best-known people of the 1960s. Roger Hilton comes to mind. But if you take away that fact, I don't think it's at all bad. Student work has to be derivative. There's not much hope that you'll find more than one or two people at such an early age doing something exceptionally new.' Other works seemed less rooted in the past. 'A lot of the students here do seem interested in conquering technique. That's vastly encouraging. It means they have the ability to do things in their own manner. There is clearly good teaching going on and things like the new sculpture school at the R C A are very exciting.' He was captivated by a large yellow and green abstract, Ophelia, by Julie Neat (Central St Martin's): 'I think it's quite beautiful. You get a feeling of mossy banks and deep green water.' Opposite lay another favourite, Mariko Mori's Art as Fashion (Chelsea). 'That's a very compelling image too. In both of these I don't find myself coming up with an obvious source.' Of commercial prospects he was somewhat cautious, but the long-term outlook looked good. 'There must be a number here who will still be around in 45 years' time. It's like looking at the under-21 football team. If we can see positive things at this stage, then we should feel pretty good.'

THE CURATOR

Greg Hilty is a curator at the Hayward Gallery:

Hilty exercised some caution: 'I think what's coming out of the schools is just about right, but it's hard to tell at jamborees like this just how interesting individual artists are.' His attention was caught by Art as Fashion by Mariko Mori (Chelsea). 'This is a very clear statement of an essential point. Quite funny, not assuming anything more than it's trying to say. It would be interesting to see more of what this artist does.' As we walked, it became clear that, for Hilty, variety was essential: 'How much new art depends upon teaching at the colleges is hard to say. In other countries, such as the US, the first question you ask a young artist is not 'Where did you go to college?' but 'Who were you an assistant to?' But good work does continue to come out of them. This is interesting.' It was a steel sculpture by Philippa Mannes (Bath). 'From a distance you see this piece and wonder about it; once you get up close, you can see the tags referring to human height and stereotypes. Your formal engagement with the work of art is changed. It's making a formal visual statement deriving from minimalism, which becomes a social comment.' Seeing this alongside more traditional works, Hilty noted: 'There seems to be a pluralism about in the schools today which is good for students. I'm not sure whether in terms of actual materials the colleges have enough resources. But one potential danger probably comes from students not being exposed to new ideas as a result of restrictions on part-time teaching. The system as a whole loses out. Providing, though, that the intellectual and technical skills are being made accessible, it must be a good time to be working your way through the variety of art available.'

Fresh Art: Business Design Centre, Upper St, N1 (071-359 3535) to 1 Aug (the show will be re-hung on Tue 28 July). Mon-Sat 11am-6pm. Cut-price admission pounds 3.50 (normally pounds 5) on presentation of this page

(Photographs omitted)

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