Great expectations: students of the RA Schools prepare for their final show

Published 26 May 2016

The stage is set and the pressure is on as third-year students from the RA Schools prepare work for their final show, which opens to the public this summer in the studios of the RA. Jonathan P. Watts goes behind the scenes to meet the artists at this critical point.

  • From the Summer 2016 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Prejudices have formed about the kind of work London’s postgraduate fine art institutions produce. The Royal College of Art painters supposedly graduate gallery-ready. Goldsmiths students, tooled up with theory, adopt the ubiquitous, and therefore democratic, medium of the moving image. Work at the RA Schools is beautifully produced, often big.

    Expectations can be oppressive, and they are intensified at the RA Schools, where around 50 students are fortunate to participate in the country’s only three-year, entirely fee-free postgraduate art programme. In London, a city that’s increasingly hostile to people with even median incomes, RA students have the rarest commodity of all: space to develop as an artist. Because it is fee free, entry is strongly competitive and the standard is therefore very high. The programme culminates in the RA Schools Show, in which third-year students display work to the public in their studios behind Burlington House.

    Touring the Schools’ facilities – from the studios to the sculpture and printmaking workshops, photographic darkroom and Epsom Digital Suite – instills a powerful sense of possibility. The plural of ‘Schools’ is key: there are no categories enforced between disciplines. Traditionalists sometimes speculate that this leads to a lack of rigour, but Mark Hampson, Head of Fine Art Processes at the Schools, says it is essential for creativity and, in terms of process, can lead to compelling hybrids of old and new. “We tend to think innovation comes with new technology,” Hampson says, “and yet many students come here already digital-tech savvy and want to learn traditional techniques of making.”

  • Elliot Dodd working at his drawing board in the RA studios

    Elliot Dodd working at his drawing board in the RA studios

    Photograph by Carol Sachs

  • Typically, students acquire the skills required to realise a piece of work as they go along. In addition to the tutors in the Schools’ workshops, artists consult YouTube, which hosts a vast bank of video tutorials for almost any technique, from digital video colour-correction to mixing silicon rubber moulds. Of course, material costs exercise very real constraints on work, but at the RA the scale of imagination grows to fit the possibilities. “It’s best that you know you don’t want to do something because you’ve tried it, instead of speculating,” says third-year student Claire Undy. Ideas are one thing; making and seeing the materiality of the thing in front of you is another.

    This is apparent in Molly Palmer’s work. When I reach the top of four flights of narrow stairs to her studio – tucked away on high – I open the door into an interior lined by storyboard sketches and technical diagrams, shelves adorned with primitive ceramic coil pots and, hanging from the far wall, boldly-patterned costumes. At the centre of the room, standing on a green screen that curves up to form a backdrop, is an actress in full garb. “Give me a moment,” comes a voice from the darkness. Palmer then emerges from behind a Canon cinema camera, borrowed from the Schools’ store. The actress takes a rest.

    For months Palmer has been absorbed in the large-scale production of a new film for the final exhibition. Many of the objects around the studio are props she made. Post-production of the video occurs in the media suite. There, Palmer will isolate the image of the actress, virtually placing her in a fantastical setting of her own design. She shows me one of her characters, or at least part of it: a monstrous beast’s hand in latex, with pointed nails and a Rococo-ish frilled sleeve, that only ever enters the side of the frame in close up. It just so happened that a workshop tutor had previously worked in mainstream cinema prosthetic make-up, producing latex body parts. “Funnily enough,” Molly admitted, “when I started the course the access to materials and workshops meant I got carried away with learning new software and techniques. My interim show work ended up looking too finished, too slick. Since then I’ve gone back to working with lo-fi processes initially, using the new skills I’ve learnt here to speed up production and amplify the handmade quality of the work.”

  • Kira Freije in her studio at the RA Schools

    Kira Freije in her studio at the RA Schools

    Photograph by Carol Sachs

  • The studio space of Robin Seir, featuring some of his paintings

    The studio space of Robin Seir, featuring some of his paintings

    Photograph by Carol Sachs

  • Standing in Kira Freije’s studio (pictured) I’m surrounded by physically improbable stainless-steel sculptural constructions. Inflated by a fan, a pair of billowing leggy forms flap atop a drainpipe bolted to the studio wall; on the other side of the studio, is an occultish table-turning apparatus, reminiscent of a Victorian seance, with metal hands placed flat on the tabletop and poised to point to letters around the rim as they receive communiques from the other side. Kira is considering motorising the tabletop, so it spins and whirs, the letters endlessly illegible.

    Alana Francis, who entered the Schools on the basis of a writing practice, shows me documentation of a spoken-word performance recounting horrific post-operation morphine dreams. I try to reconcile this with what I see next: Wanda Wieser’s gorgeous copper, salt and crystal sculptural assemblages (pictured). Then Gery Georgieva (pictured) introduces me to her alter ego Vera Modena, who reworks Beyonce’s power pop songs dressed in folky Balkan chinoiserie.

    After their final-year show, the students will no longer have access to materials and workshops as they once did. This is a very serious consideration, and many of the students voice their desire to develop a sustainable practice that can continue outside the Schools. But moving between studios, as I meet more artists individually and in groups, in the canteen and in hallways, it becomes evident that, more than the IT suite or the wood workshop, the greatest facility at the Schools is the community, vital to which is that immaterial thing: conversation, an important process in the production of art. The value of it is inestimable. The relationships that have formed will serve the graduates far beyond the walls of Burlington House.

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