An A for academic effort

Cristín Leach Hughes, The Sunday Times, 1/12/2013

The latest RHA Futures artists show promise but are undercooked, argues Cristín Leach Hughes

“I can’t speak because I’m choking on these fossils”, says the salmon-crested cockatoo in Jenny Brady’s Wow and Flutter at the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA). He says it via subtitles, so he doesn’t say it at all, but the words that appear in her 14-minute video confer thoughts and ideas onto the bird in a manner that is both seamless and oddly urgent.

“Forgive me. You see I’m lost, so unsure of myself” he says. It’s absurd, tragicomic, affecting and one of the best pieces in the show, but it also offers a metaphorfor what has happened to this generation of artists.

Contemporary art is in constant danger of eating itself, and it’s at the cutting edge – where the teeth are sharpest – that the output is getting most chewed up. Brady is one of seven Irish artists selected for the RHA’s latest show of emerging talent, Futures 13. None of these artists is lost. To judge by their work, they are all competent, confident and serious about where they are going, but they are also to various degrees choking on the fossils. Today’s art college graduates, almost without exception, produce work that is bogged down by a hyper-awareness of history. Where is the raw talent, the spontaneity? The naïve, unadulterated instinct?

This art wears its 21st-century academic credentials on its sleeve. New academic art is well produced and presented; conceptually sound; flawless in terms of its motivations, references and origins; and frequently boring. There are worthwhile moments in Futures 13, but they are besieged by an overall feeling that the kind of art being made by these artists right now is unlikely to endure beyond the fashions of the day.

Since 2001, the RHA Futures shows have sought to highlight artists around whom there is “an emerging critical and curatorial consensus”. All but one of this year’s selection are aged in their thirties. Emma Donaldson is 46. The youngest, Tracy Hanna, was born in 1984. Several who first attended art college in the 1990s have returned, including the painter Neil Carroll Brady, Anita Delany, Maggie Madden and Eleanor Duffin have all completed master’s, two of them in the past three years. They are all operating within the parameters and requirements of new academic art.

RHA’s Futures has featured slightly more established and mature artists. Stand-out names include the painter Oliver Comerford; performance artists Amanda Coogan and Aideen Barry; Nevan Lahart, John Gerrard, Liam O’Callaghan, Linda Quinlan and Ailbhe Ní Bhriain. Not all of the early Futures artists have gone on to find commercial representation or even a continued career.

The show has always represented a good cross section of the best emerging artists. These seven are all products of a certain way of thinking about, writing about and creating art. From Hanna’s slick, dark video piece in the centre of Gallery 1 to Madden’s near invisible optical fibre constructions, everyone here is making technically intelligent, self-consciously well thought out art that is wary of reaching conclusions.

Delaney’s video pieces Huh and Mouth Breather are short, sharp and intended to be shocking. A series of images and phrases designed to disturb appear in quick succession. It’s like being slapped in the face with a variety of unexpected objects that don’t particularly hurt, but leave you felling slightly numb. At under two minutes, both can be watched several times, but neither imparts more meaning when you do.

The whole show suffers from this and it’s not necessarily the artists’ fault. Most of the work feels a little undercooked. All seven are still revelling in the satisfying experience of making art, of working with materials and playing with media and ideas. A joy in the physical reality of the objects she has produced is a large part of what drives Donaldson’s mixed-media constructions. They are curious, odd and evoke several emotions, chiefly a feeling of entrapment. Duffin’s best pieces are her most restrained: a wall mounted sculpture in steel and latex paint, entitled Grounded; and a digital photo, Adamantine.

Carroll, the only male and the only painter in the show, has produced enormous wooden scaffolds that hold the largest of his paintings away from the walls. It’s fun and ambitious, but somewhat overblown. His abstraction compositions have long-winded or obtuse titles. They are zoomy and angular, spiky and drippy, or claustraphobic and grid-based. His instincts are good but, like Madden, he is conscious of all who came before.

Artists today access more images, more theory and criticism than any previous generation. All are concerned with the titles of works, and the references contained within them. In response to the idea that 21st-century art is post medium, they seem to be suggesting it is post-explanation. The documentation on this show speaks of ‘strategies of translation, performance and rhetoric”, incidents dismantling, speculation, manipulations and juxtapositions.

Delaney is wary of attaching language to her mainly recorded performance-based work, but describes it as an attempt to “trace an aesthetic of the pathetic”. Caroll is concerned with “avoiding conclusions” – and perhaps for the RHA that’s what predicting the future is all about. Some of these seven may well be the future of Irish art, but they’re not there yet.
Carroll is getting there and Madden is one to watch. Brady’s short film is slick and persuasive. In it, the voiceover asks: “What use is half a language?” Indeed. The Futures 13 artists can all walk the walk and even talk the talk, but where they are going and what they are saying is not all that interesting – yet.

Futures 13, RHA, Dublin, until Dec 20.