I’ve always found Edinburgh a miserable place. The cold, grey stone and the icy winds, whipped up from the North Sea, have often deterred me. But I also have a curious respect for it as a frequently overlooked centre of European cultural history — the self-proclaimed ‘Athens of the North’. No Edinburgh, then no Enlightenment — or at least something thereabouts. Thus the sound of a new exhibition, YEA (‘Young Edinburgh Artists’ — original, I know) seemed appealing. That, and the offer of free booze at the opening party. The weather, I must admit, was all I’d expected, but colder, darker, windier. I wiled away the afternoon drinking Tennents — that peculiarly dull beer so loved by the Scots — before making my way over to the Whitespace Gallery. The sight of the packed gallery, then, was a warm prospect, as I shouldered my way in from the cold. Once inside, I began to suspect the ‘Edinburgh’ part of the exhibition’s title might be a little misleading. There wasn’t a Scot in sight — just rather Sloaney students, and a few elderly hacks from the local papers.
Cleo Stouzker’s Two Figures Round a Lake was one of the exhibition’s highlights. Of the artworks on show, this was one of the most original. The two figures stand by the lake, postured like primitive zombies gradually dipping their toes into the lake. The lake itself becomes a kind of pivot, a vortex, around which the figures begin to spin — and in the process of doing so, their identity becomes fluid, with each figure blending into the next.
Other paintings of interest were Emma Simpson’s Sunday; with its dashes of colour and sense of incompleteness, it perfectly evokes a sense of Sunday breeziness. Brushstrokes trail from figure to figure, ensuring that even though the leftmost figure is somewhat distant, it is not isolated. Daniele Evans’ Take it, take it cos you can was an interesting painting, though it was slightly confused by its mission statement — one line of which, ‘an ambiguous collection of details, and a questioning perspective of acquired culture’, is turgid at best, nonsensical at worst. This doesn’t detract from the painting, however: its confusing assortment of mirror selfies, girls smoking cigarettes and playing with their phones, and its emphasis on hairstyles and fashion over facial identity and the background reflects just how shallow our culture has become.
Hugh Collins’ Abstract Minimalism had an unnecessarily pretentious title; it sounds more like a forgotten movement of the late 20th century than actual artwork. The painting itself was one of the more unique and original works in the exhibition, both in terms of its very formal abstraction and its fresh take on 1920s movements such as Bauhaus and Constructivism — but one wonders whether its painter took the old, hackneyed adage that ‘even a child could paint this’ a little too seriously. Facing it from the other wall, Josie Sawyer’s Seascape was a very different painting: dark, brooding and almost Cezanne-esque, with an excellent representation of clouds. It isn’t necessarily original, but it certainly seems of a Scottish temperament — which makes its painter more worthy of the ‘YEA’ title than some of the other artists.
There was a notable use of film: of particular note were Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Ella Williamson) and Arcadian Dream (Cece Plumtree and Albert Courage). The former was somewhat thought-provoking, and made use of an unsettling juxtaposition of videos, memes, and photographs, all of which were pasted on top of a video of apes dancing. I dare say it attempted to cover too much in too brief a period. The issue of Kim Kardashian’s braids and cultural appropriation seemed to fall somewhat flat in comparison to the brutalities of Empire, the Murder of George Floyd, and a terrifying clip of a racist young Milwall fan who could have been no older than five years old. But perhaps that’s what it’s trying to say: it highlights the hypocrisy in the ways that we differentiate between the more blatant forms of racism, and the actions of someone like Kim Kardashian or Ariana Grande. Nevertheless, I found it fell flat aesthetically: a striking political message, but perhaps indicative of the contemporary urge to call anything ‘Art’. Arcadian Dream, on the other hand, showed artistic promise. Initially, I was sceptical — thinking the word ‘Arcadia’, a little like ‘reality’ or ‘transcendence’, is onanistically overused in works of young, rather pretentious artists. But here it seemed to have some potency, as the video sought to discuss ‘Arcadia’ in its proper form — youth and love are present, but the impossibility of these youthful dreams seems to linger over it. That the two figures are in love is clear, but that the characters never appear on screen together suggests a certain disconnect, a sense of one constantly chasing after the other whilst never being able to settle down. The repetitive organ music, which grinds on with a powerful inevitability in the background, seems to reflect the illusion of the lovers: that what they have is everlasting.
Lucia Shepherd’s Can You Catch a Shadow? (a photograph of a performance piece) is particularly eerie: blue fabric wraps onto an alien-like figure. Two weeks on, it persists in my mind; I’m really not sure what to say or think about it. I struggle to understand it, but that’s not to the work’s detriment — it’s thought-provoking in the wordless way that some great works of art tend to be.
The YEA Exhibition, it must be said, did not offer the originality one might expect from an exhibition that frames itself as an heir to the YBAs. But perhaps what they’ve inherited from their forebears is more the idea of putting on their own exhibition without the University’s involvement — as the YBAs did in the late 80s — and in their ability to self-promote. One exciting aspect of the show, however, was its difference to the YBAs. Last year’s graduate exhibitions showed a general return to figurative painting, and YEA has followed this trend. Of all the works on show, none had chosen its form for the mere hell of it.
It’s difficult to do justice to a Student Exhibition since you can’t necessarily look for brilliance, genius, or beauty, but instead must content yourself with the promise of that. And there certainly was promise.
Ella Williamson, Rise of the Planet of the Apes:
Cece Plumtree and Albert Courage, Arcadian Dream:
List of Paintings: