Fine Art at 2017 Annual Degree shows, University of Ulster Belfast, 2 – 10 June

Fiftysix pages of a newsprint 36 x 29 cm ( a size of not the smallest of canvas) carries the basic administrative information about courses and a campus map. BUT not the layout of the placement.  Each cohort of students in each  degree is given two pages of visual documentation, for few selected students. I am not impressed.  After my visit, I would have preferred list of names and contact sheets of all graduates work, to assist memory and to be a valuable source document for archives. To my dismay, someone wasted this valuable opportunity.

Now and here,  I have recalled one of the ground on which this inadequate handout  may appear “adequate”.

Antonio Gramsci spent his time in Mussolini’s Jail (1930) writing.   He wrote down  also fragments of his subsequent theory of “organic intellectuals”—theorists, technicians, and administrators, who became their “functionaries” in a new, bourgeois society. Unlike “traditional intellectuals” these  “organic intellectuals”  helped the bourgeoisie establish its ideas as the invisible, unquestioned conventional wisdom.  So, what is a current parallel – or even equivalent?

Great minds, we are told, no longer captivate the public as they once did, because the university is too insular and academic thinking is too narrow. Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals (1987) complained about the post-1960s professionalization of academia that betrayed and rejected  the bohemian, “independent” intellectuals of the earlier twentieth century.  Heroic Modernism.

Then as now, the visual art had no impact on wider audiences.

Writers like the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof attribute this sorry state of affairs to the culture of Ph.D. programs, which, Kristof claims, have glorified “arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.” His critique  implies that it is the academic  mindset itself  that frustrates ( and prevents)  the flow of their ideas to the wider public.

But there is more to this.  The rich of this world pay unbelievable sums for a BASQUIAT at present,  while not recognising his art  when he lived in a  cardbox in New York park. And all the PhDs and academia are irrelevant to this tragic paradox.

In his book The Ideas Industry, the political scientist and foreign policy blogger Daniel W. Drezner  focuses on the conditions in which ideas are formed, funded, and expressed with one strange result: the rich support a thought leader not  a free thinker/public intellectual (hoped to replace that “academic mindset”).   While public intellectuals traffic in complexity and criticism, thought leaders burst with the evangelist’s desire to “change the world”.   Compare Corbyn and Chomsky.  Oh yes, I am mindful of the paradoxical irony. Drezner observes, people” ….prefer the “big ideas” of the Lenin’s of this world  to the complexity of “public intellectuals” of the day.: ” In a marketplace of ideas awash in plutocrat cash, it has become “increasingly profitable for thought leaders to hawk their wares to both billionaires and a broader public,” to become “superstars with their own brands, sharing a space previously reserved for moguls, celebrities, and athletes.” Honest warning then.

Hence the difference between art fairs, biennials and auctions and  degree shows.  Degree shows are more like a public intellectual.  At least this Fine Art  in Belfast is.   And, yes, it is a mix of levels and mastery.    Overall, the 2017 edition looks stronger in its sincerity not to know everything, but what they know they deliver with grace and determination.  This is not a comprehensive review. It is a response to one photographer, one sculptor and one painter only.

SAM WELSH  thinks of himself as a sculptor and photographer. I have copied the above images from his website, which gives no captions.  (  He disrupts habitual expectations.   I cannot be sure whether the above constellation was found or constructed by Welsh.  What is it standing on? How big it is? How small it is? What is beyond its horizon? Or is it an edge of a table?

I have no doubt that he would, nevertheless, treat  both found or made,  equally, by this special kind of disruption.  Before him, at least two or three  artists used that  concept in harness with the possibilities of illusions manifestly easy for a lens. Jan Dibbets, Richard Long and Nam June Paik.

Turf Sculpture 1967 Richard Long born 1945 Purchased 1976

Nam June Paik disrupted the artist-centered practices of music and visual art and reformulated a relationship with the audience, from a standpoint of “participation.”  This month  an  exhibition  Extraordinary Phenomenon, Nam June Paik   has focused   on  this idea, making it, as if, a museum piece:

“His  notion of participation   is two-tiered: one is concerned with the audience’s part in the process of art-making, and with the workings of art at the audience’s end, and the other encompasses “participatory art” meaning social and political involvement by means of art. “Participation” in contemporary art is not confined to the audience’s interaction with artworks and construed as relating to social and political institutions. “(quote from their press release)


Sam Welsh applies a strategy of uncertainty as cultivated by both Abstract Expressionism and –  by baroque painters.  He disrupts all clues that may define the scale and distance.

In the above image is a little give away  – reflected source of light on the otherwise not defined  “wall” indicates set up in an interior. It is possible to go on seeing it as sky  behind the rocks.

The viewer’s participation is inescapable, even when the give-away clues are muted.   The photograph captured a small heaps of sand with some stones in disarray, which may be images coming down from the universe of a completely different scale.

I think of Welsh’s  concept as of “quantum indeterminacy” when he simply clicks the camera and stops having another option.  And it is different from Jan Dibbets drawing over photographs, in that it dares to block the viewer’s need to know.

Perspective Correction 1968 Jan Dibbets born 1941 Purchased 1973



deals with an idea of art  that fuses Plato’s theory of creation and Japanese aesthetics of Wabi-Sabi. In a set of  similar shapes in porcelain she echoes Plato’s story that Demiurg made the universe from two circles -: circle of similarity and a circle of difference, by cutting, measuring, weighing etc – all craft methods (see Timaeus). She made a number of bell shapes and brick shapes in white clay ( bricks in a frame on the side of the window)

They are aesthetically alive towards a beauty  due to the material and a kind of discipline of the craft.  In disharmony with that are all the irregular remnants “that  craft would remove” unless it becomes interested in some  stage of Wabi-Sabi, an ages revered  kind of disrupted beauty, still beautiful.

Japanese Raku pottery is known for cherishing “mistakes”. Cracks may be venerated so that the repair is made with gold.  Unintended shape is greeted with reverence.

Wabisabi (侘寂) is a concept in traditional Japanese aesthetics constituting a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection.

Lyness consciously connected these shapes with their imperfections to her life , giving them this title:  The Flux It’s All About Me.   Indeed, the bricks are modeled on bricks from the demolished Art Deco building, site of the undergraduate Fine Art course, she attended, prior to move to a new building.  She also recalls a story of her parents, who met in the ballroom of that destroyed  building.



The painting group this year was impressively stronger than those I saw over the two decades.  I have  recognised Paddy McCann’s “hand” in the specks of pink in otherwise brown paintings by

CHARLIE SCOTT whose large canvases  triggered  association with  so called Danube School  and Anselm Kiefer, inter alia.

Anselm Kiefer, Seraphim, 1983, oil, straw, emulsion and shellac on canvas. Credit: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Purchased with funds contributed by Mr. and Mrs. Andrew M. Saul, 1984

While the palette of both painters proclaims  similarities, Scott positions the painted layer  – perhaps in line with the subject-  away from the heavier materials and materiality – nearer to Grunewald’s  fusion of a dream and observation.

Charlie Scott, Water, From the Bog, oil on canvas, 2017

Both Kiefer and Scott caress a paradox: unsettling delicacy  of light and heavy earth bound hues  are trusted with seamless cooperation.

Parsifal I 1973 Anselm Kiefer born 1945 Purchased 1982

In line with Scott’s  subject matter, in this detail from the diptych  the light bubbles  through  as if in an  alchemist cauldron.  Like Kiefer, Scott cherishes the visual complexity of the painted surface, but does not entertain sharp contrasts, that the older painter imbues with  ethics and philosophy.

The moral law within us, the starry heavens above us 1969/2010 Anselm Kiefer born 1945 ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Acquired jointly through The d?Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2011

Charlie Scott, Medley below the pine, oil on canvas, 2017

The graduated light above the evergreens, house and figure confidently refuses to indicate its source, becoming a source itself.  This atmospheric  “interior” is reminiscent of the light above Christ’s head  on Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece  ( 1512-1516, at present at Colmar Museum Unter d. Linden). The twilight  landscape  is not too  far from how Grunewald painted the horizon behind the Crucifixion. It is just visible above and behind the hand of Mary Magdalene. (Sorry – I failed to find a better image – for example the sharp highlight between the earth and sky is absent here.)

Grunewald  painted the sky  and the landscape  like you would in a watercolour. Scott too, while at times insisting in gestural identification of the brushstrokes.

Images  of Charlie Scott’s painting courtesy of the artist’s FB page.

Post Scriptum: I would have liked to include another artist –  I did not take a note of his name – hoping that the large scale document  I was given would facilitate that identification. It failed.





About Slavka Sverakova

writer on art
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