Art stars of tomorrow: The latest edition of the show where Damien Hirst and David Hockney started out

Hirst and Prouvost started in New Contemporaries.  This year’s crop is just as promising

New Contemporaries, the annual show of art students fresh out of college, has been going for 54 years now. The natural temptation is to view it as a talent contest for picking winners. And indeed the roll call of past exhibitors who have gone on to fame and fortune, from David Hockney, Damien Hirst and the Chapman Brothers to this year’s Turner Prize winner, Laure Prouvost, is pretty impressive. It’s the wrong way to visit the show, however. The pleasure of the exhibition, now at the ICA, is in just feeling the vibes.

Its particular character comes from the fact that the works are picked by established artists without pre-selection. This year, the judges were Ryan Gander, Chantal Joffe and Nathaniel Mellors, so you could expect a good deal of playing around with images, a fair few installations, along with a dash of humour and  the grotesque.

And that, indeed, is what you get. With a total 46 artists represented, there isn’t room to show a full selection of each in the space provided. But with one or two works apiece, and the occasional series, you get a good variety and some unexpected, as well as planned, juxtapositions of artists. If you had to draw out a theme, it would be that nearly all the works are the result of quite self-conscious ideas for an installation, video or painted work. Few of them betray a passionate concern for expressing the artist’s feelings; they seem to focus more on impressing the viewer.

There is a good and bad side to this. The good side is that the exhibits are intriguing and, when witty, often genuinely funny. You are not faced here with the angst of Byronic youth but the discipline of students, well trained in their craft and knowledgeable about the art traditions that have preceded them. And, one notices in this increasingly global age, they come from all over Europe and beyond. Like the rest of higher education, Britain’s art  colleges trawl far and wide for paying pupils.

Simon Senn, Purlieus Taels, 2011

 The exhibition opens with the most emphatic statement of the assembly. Julia Parkinson’s inverted ziggurat, In Conversation, is made from welded steel, sand and paint. Like a stepwell, it compels you peer in to a pattern of descending lines, the sand at the bottom emphasising the hardness of the steel and giving it a resonance of past place. A New Zealander who trained at Camberwell  College, you feel that there is a boldness here that could make her a public sculptor of note in the future.

 If there is a degree of tentativeness in many of the other works, domesticity even, there is also an eagerness. You can sense the difficulties. The last century took painting and sculpture so far and in so many directions that it is very difficult for any young artist in this  century to break free from the past. Nonetheless, they try. Tom Worsfold does it by combining graphic self-representation with upsurging lines in Self Portrait on Beach; Grant Foster by using the texture of the paint itself as the medium of the message in The Agnostic and The Assumed; and Menna Cominetti by mixing media between ink sketch on paper, spray paint and steel in the (then again) series. The most impressive of the painters, however, seemed to me the most conventional in  Modernist terms. Maarten van den Bos’s figurative paintings, in acrylic, emulsion and filler, have an energy in their rough outlines and even rougher textures that suggest there is still mileage in the De Kooning legacy.

So, too, with the sculpture, where the mixing of ordinary materials pioneered by the Cubists,  and the contradiction of shape and association pursued by the Surrealists, still hold sway. There are, in the fashion of our day, rather too many installations in which odd shapes and the addition of bits of clothing are assumed to relay ironic meaning, but Catherine Hughes’s disassembled neon signs, with their crumpled screens and fluorescent lights, work well as both as objects and as comments on the urban world. Agnes Calf’s series of clay panels, incised with coins or dripping cassette tapes, lie halfway between the two and the three-dimensional, and succeed all the better for it.

Joanna Piotrowska, IV from FROWST

It is with video, however, that the young  artists seem most energetic, partly because the medium is not so weighted by the past. Jokes and japes abound, so much so that you feel the real pleasure is in coming up with the concept and adding a witty title rather than making them. In Dante Rendle Traynor’s Show, a disembodied head covered in shaving cream sings and pronounces while words and questions move up and down behind him. Dominic Watson jigs away to the Rolling Stones by Henry Moore’s Standing Figure in Like a  Rolling Stone. Adam Hogarth has a little toy troll speaking literally out of its backside in Language is a Virus from Outer Space. Calum Crawford has a fat man guzzling fast food in Bucket of Chicken & a 4oz, while Matthias  Tharang has a naked man with a monstrous beer belly building up and then knocking down a construction of plaster cubes in Beauty of Labour. Adham Faramaway has a gay old time showing a naked man doing his exercises and improving his physique in Total Flex.

And so a good time is had by all, including the viewer, it should be said. Whether they amount to much beyond the gags in the titles is not so certain. One’s concern with this kind of work is that it promotes art where the student aims to impress with the inventiveness of the idea rather than the work itself. Digital  photography allows a relatively easy way to technical competence.

But it also promotes ironic detachment by the artists. Even in the more serious videos, such as Aisha Abid Hussain’s searching eye through the garden and interior of her parents’ home, At My Father’s House, and Shelley  Theodore’s record of her elderly neighbour in France looking out of her house and retreating within, in Madame Boussieux Looks, there’s a sense that the concept is regarded as sufficient unto itself.

There are two exceptions to this, and very good they are too. Simon Senn, a graduate of Goldsmiths from Switzerland, featured in last year’s New Contemporaries with a video set in a South African township in which he invited the unemployed to take part in a staged display of deprivation that was itself an act of exploitation. This time he has gone to the “banlieues” of Paris to produce a parallel  narrative, in which he pays a tradesman to act out a story about anger leading to violence, while at the same time interviewing two youths in such a confrontational manner that they eventually do assault him. It’s compulsive viewing, but says something about us as viewers of the world’s poor.

The other stand-out work is that of the Polish photography graduate from the Royal College of Arts, Joanna Piotrowska. In a series of staged shots about relationships entitled Frowst, a couple of young men in briefs lie side by side on a Persian carpet, two girls in similar dresses to sit athwart each other on a chair and a group of young men and girls to lie on top of each other on a lawn. The compositions are theatrically deliberate, the poses anything but relaxed and the sitters clearly conscious of the camera. But the result as an essay on the strained informality of family and friends, and the ambiguity of feelings, which is both disturbing and moving. 

Here, you feel, are two artists who genuinely use their craft to investigate and reveal the life around them.

Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2013,  ICA, London SW1 (020 7930 3647,  newcontemporaries.org.uk) to 26 January 2014

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