The first problem was the venue – a soulless, inaccessible, charmless space, the SERS building at Osney which required a considerable effort to find, and was too far out of town for the many visitors on foot. Nothing could have alienated a prospective patron, interested in further commission and/or purchase further.
Only seventeen students were exhibiting, the culmination of three years' work, which began with a fiercely competitive entry. Yet the venue, chosen to enhance the exhibits, instead fragmented the individual portfolios, scattering them about the building. Whatever possessed the organisers to eschew their infinitely more charming and convenient High Street venue, and the idea of grouping the works by artist?
While obscenities were eagerly chalked on a blackboard wall, virtually no effort was made to guide the visitor around the exhibition space. Some areas were so vast, a number of students’ work was mixed up together. Other areas were dark and inaccessible, adjoining small, poorly lit rooms, or approached along labyrinthine, unmarked flimsy staircases. These poorly served their exhibits. The map, given on entry, with a few sketchy initials, was wholly inadequate.
Worse, the scattergun effect of the dispersal of students’ work, without obvious access to portfolio, gave little or no sense of context or progression. The sense of confusion was so great, and so widely shared, that I gave up entirely on my first visit, but was lucky enough to join a Friends tour, conducted by exhibitors the following morning, which gave at least the opportunity to put names to exhibits.
Ollie Beer’s idea that every architectural space is characterised by its own internal resonance was manifested live at the show’s opening by volunteers reciting the Ruskin’s own cultural mantra, recorded and then repeated, repeatedly: ‘being inside a wine glass as it sings’. Beer’s confessional reconstruction showed promise as a film maker, while Jacob Wolff’s colour-filled burettes cleverly fused art with science, and Lizzie Porter’s tactility and beautiful, atmospheric photography was striking.
But how much would Ruskin have understood Stephanie Farmer’s attempt to ‘neutralise conversation’ with adjacent art works, in her plaster casts, or Tom Howey’s small hours of blowtorching? I am not an artist, nor am I an art critic. But I found little to admire, wonder at, move or edify.
As one ex-Ruskin student commented:
‘The School has lost its uniqueness. It just produces students like all the other art schools which seem to be going through a dark age of skill and passion. Where is the heart?’
Where was Ruskin’s Fine Art and Drawing? Search me.