Everybody loves to glimpse behind the scenes; to see a project come together piece by piece. The Royal College of Art’s ‘Work-in-Progress’ exhibitions provide an exciting insight into powerful beginnings, borne at the hands of the artists and designers of the future.
Capturing a moment halfway between conception and creation, the innovative exercise also gives students much-needed experience in exhibiting their art within their own studio spaces in a compelling and unique way. Undoubtedly a varied bunch, the RCA student body consists of experienced artists, mature or foreign students hailing from a diversity of backgrounds, as well as a host of young people with the ink barely dry on their BA certificates. Attending the exhibition preview evening I took myself around some of the inspiring spaces, and here, present some of the work that really stood out.
London-based painted Eleanor Barreau used the Work-in-Progress exhibition to showcase her new series, which focusses on imagery of London’s housing blocks in order to address the city’s regeneration and gentrification. Barreau’s previous work (her Foundation and BA Course were at Central Saint Martins) has been predominantly figurative, borrowing from vintage advertising and fashion imagery, but this she felt would benefit from using the absence of figures to highlight the human side of this urban escalation. She concedes that the standpoint is a sentimental one, yet nonetheless highlighting an unfair situation.
Mona Osman, also on the Painting MA course, and already with seven London exhibitions under her belt, showcased a very absorbing group of drawings (sketches for larger paintings) pinned up in the opposite corner of a studio shared with Barreau. Entitled ‘The Red Cube’, the little additions of colour to the severe black and white sketches represent Osman’s concept of ‘everything’ – explained here in an excerpt from her artist’s statement printed below the works: ‘The Red Cube is nothing. I invented The Red Cube. However, The Red Cube is everything. The Red Cube is the essence. The Red Cube gives your essence. Because there is always a driving force in our lives…’
I particularly liked the complete oxymoronic artist styles visible – Jean-Michel Basquiat and contemporary street art, together with something very similar to George Grosz.
Bob Eikelboom's work in progress at Royal College of Art 2016
Further into the Painting Studios I begin to realise the main crux of what studying at the RCA means – you are not limited by the kind of work the title of your course states you should. Bob Eikelboom’s allocated space in the studio is filled with a low fish tank that sits on a computer monitor running three simultaneous video pieces. One is a ‘Youtube Mix’, automatically running through endless videos to do with ‘art’ – as his sole ‘search’ term. Another is a grid of videos, like an extruded flip-book, showing Eikelboom putting together the fish tank, going to the pet shop to source the goldfish, and depositing them into their new temporary home – next week they’re going with him to Rotterdam where he is exhibiting with a gallery there as part of Art Rotterdam. His third video, taking up the largest portion of the screen, is a GIF of James Dean leaning on his elbows at the bottom of the frame, repeatedly looking upwards as if struck by a brainwave, then dismissing it with a slight shake of the head and looking down again. Eikelboom was especially keen on this one, so I asked whether he likened the loop to the process of making art. Together we talked about how you can wrack your brain for ideas, grasp one, but almost instantly can dismiss it due to inbuilt instincts or self-doubt.
Also in Painting, Elizabeth Drury had set up her corner with three stages of teddy bear deconstruction. On the floor was a mass of stuffing, sewing, fur and fabric – the characters that didn’t quite make it – and then suspended on strings or sitting along shelves were the Frankenstein’s monsters, looking so forlorn and uncanny.
In diametric contradiction to the chaos of dismemberment are three extremely delicate pencil still-life drawings of the new creations. Both forms of Drury’s output reference very labour-intensive forms of creating that result in opposing views of the same objects.
Benji Jeffrey, on the Moving Image MA, was showing his ‘Work-in-Progress’, ‘Somewhere Between an Act and an Actor’, which was cleverly projected overhead in the main entrance space of a repurposed car dealership across from the main RCA buildings. The screen was hexagon-shaped and the five minute long piece played across the segments, which progressively switched between a recorded interview with Robert Downey Jr. for Channel 4 with Krishnan Guru-Murthy made in April 2015, where Downey Jr. becomes increasingly unsettled and uncomfortable (and ends up walking out) as he’s probed by Guru-Murthy – and a video made by Jeffrey of an actress, Penny Klein, mimicking Downey Jr.’s speech and facial expressions. There is a moment when Downey Jr. states “none of us are our personas”, and it is this that Jeffrey is investigating with the split-screen – ‘the act’ vs. reality, and that moment when how you think you’re perceived by others comes up against how you actually are, and in the interview, this moment is pinpointed by the camera zooming into Downey Jr.’s face, and its befuddled expression, perfectly copied by Klein, who studied the video for over two hours in preparation. Text comes upon the screen, guiding the viewer - for instance ‘Look at the eyebrows…’, further underscoring the visible shift from being in control to out of it, and heightening the car crash watchability of it.
Sarah Howe's work in progress at Royal College of Art, 2016
Another artist who is extending the boundaries of their course’s title is Sarah Howe, on the Photography MA. One first comes across her work as you almost trip over a contented bunch of visitors, colouring in line drawings that are spread across a low plinth in the photography studio. The second part of her work is in the corner of the room – two pairs of headphones hanging below typed titles crisscrossing the wall. The titles are of YouTube videos that feature people crying, the audio of which is played on the (somewhat temperamental) headphones. The drawings on the plinth are of these crying people, drawn from video screengrabs, and the colouring-in process is a reference to the popular fad of colouring-in books for adults – a form of ‘Mindfulness’ – and other repetitive actions, often appropriated from childhood, that aid meditation for Westerners in our chaotic, fast-paced lifestyles.
Howe explained that the pieces were the result of investigations she is making into the internet and young people, the bombardment by it felt in modern life, collective memory, and modern remedies – such as ‘Mindfulness’. Her work was just one of the many collections that sought to challenge and analyse the world in which they were formed.
Words and photography: Alice Lubbock