Meet four artists in the RA Schools Show 2022

Published 22 June 2022

As the Royal Academy Schools Class of 2022 open up their studios for their final show, they reflect on how the building – from its Mayfair location to its crumbling corners – has influenced their practice.

  • From the Summer 2022 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Chris Fite-Wassilak is a writer and critic.

    What’s in a place? And how might place – the particular texture and tempo of a site or setting – influence an artist? These are some of the questions I put to four students graduating from the Royal Academy Schools this summer. All of the students I met belong to a group which, due to the pandemic, was given an additional year of study in the RA Schools, making them particularly well placed to contemplate how the art school, and its position at the heart of the Academy, has shaped their work. It is a significant time too for the art school, poised to undergo the biggest renovation since it moved to Mayfair in 1868, improving access and expanding on spaces for exhibiting and making work. As the students get ready for their final show, I asked them how this building, steeped in history and nestled in the city’s centre, has played a role in their lives.

  • Millie Layton

    Millie Layton

    Lewis Khan/Courtesy the Royal Academy of Arts, London

  • I first meet sculptor Millie Layton. Her playful, cartoonish installations often create the sense of being immersed in a surreal Plasticene world, with amorphic, brightly coloured shapes springing from the walls and floors. At times, these oversized sculptures look like organic machines; at others, they resemble mutant plants or plush toys from another dimension, hulking into the rooms they occupy. They seem alive, and yet, despite their loud presence, retain a sense of discomfort or uncertainty, as if still figuring out what they’re doing here. “I look a lot at the way plants and other things grow naturally, the way animals move,” Layton says. “Everything I make is meant to look like it’s in between things, fluid, like you can’t place it in the world.”

    In discussing the upcoming renovations, Layton sounds almost wistful. “I quite like it that bits of the Schools are falling apart – when you come up these stairs, for instance, some of the walls are rotting, with patterns of mould which formally I find very rich. Things being broken, the cracks, it all travels by osmosis into the textures of my work.” Aspects of her sculpture can be read as a response to the contradictions of the building’s architecture too. “The students’ studios are built as an extension of the main brick building, with these arches that provide one wall of my studio. Its age means you see occasional leaks in the ceiling – I love that it’s a grand institution, but the insides are falling apart in places. It’s like how I make my work: these grand, outlandish sculptures that are actually painstakingly glued together.”

    For her final exhibition at the RA, Layton is planning an installation resembling an overgrown garden, with real weeds growing from soil, interrupted by several towering flower sculptures. A layered, scaley wall sculpture, in a craggy Y shape (inspired in part by growths that appear in fissures throughout the building), will take over part of the room. It will all be presided over by a lumpy fern-like television aerial. We can plan for a clean, orderly future, Layton seems to suggest, but life and the unexpected will always burst through the cracks.

  • Rebecca K. Halliwell Sutton

    Rebecca K. Halliwell Sutton

    Lewis Khan/Courtesy the Royal Academy of Arts, London

  • Elsewhere in the Schools, Rebecca K. Halliwell-Sutton has devoted time to exploring and expanding on the details in her surroundings that commonly go unnoticed. Describing her work as a parallel form of archaeology, she has drawn inspiration for her recent sculpture and photographs from the dense urban landscape in which the RA is located. “I’m often thinking about boundaries – I’ve always been interested in land, the division of land during the agricultural and industrial revolutions and onwards, and the effects it has had on our bodies and our sense of self,” she tells me. She points to the various geological timelines in our vicinity, from the architecture of the Academy to the infrastructure embedded underground. “Mayfair is immaculate, so it’s interesting when you find tears in its fabric. I think that’s why I’m so interested in road works, seeing all the layers and tubes buried beneath the Tarmac. Any kind of excavation is intriguing to me.”

    The artist’s work often has the appearance of unlikely fossils: sculptures made from concrete or resin, seemingly shaped long ago by invisible forces. Some appear as if they might be part of old buildings or soil samples; others look like casts of clothing or an esoteric find at an archaeological dig. They retain a mystery, while also keeping a sense of intimacy, intricate in their rough-surfaced textures and crumbling corners. In one photographic series, Blue ecologies of desire (2020), what look like stones held in cloth dangle from tree branches, each image printed in the dark room in rough black-and-white onto aluminium surfaces. As with much of her work, the images feel like remnants of a tender, but ultimately obscured, ritual.

    Besides the excavations happening in the RA’s neighbourhood, she has also made extensive use of the Schools’ proximity to the Geological Society next door in Burlington House, attending lectures and developing a project based on imagery found in their archives, such as intricate drawings of various organic samples, including shells and animal bones. The looping patterns and craggy textures chime with the series of sculptures she is currently planning to display in the end-of-year exhibition, a set of aluminium plates that have been hammered to billow out like flattened clouds in the shape of a hazy, uneven ‘O’. Drawing on the mythos around ancient holed stones, these unusual formations of various sizes will be suspended by slender, claw-like arms running from the walls, creating an unsettling landscape for visitors to traverse.

  • Nicola Gunnarsson

    Nicola Gunnarsson

    Lewis Khan/Courtesy the Royal Academy of Arts, London

  • For the painter Nicola Gunnarsson, it is the art school’s location close to West End fashion stores that has been significant. “A big influence on my work is clothing in all shapes and forms,” she says. “Going to Soho, looking at the streetwear there.” The area’s abundance of style choices become starting points for colour palettes and spatial configurations, while the specialist textile shops of Berwick Street, which provide materials to fashion brands, provide a more direct source, with details including lace trimming, sequins and glitter becoming the very fabric of her canvases. Desires, memories and projections relating to clothing become fuel for her painting process, which are then all distilled, she says, “stripping everything back into something almost empty.”

    Though her paintings appear like casual abstractions – sometimes nearing a sense of a geometric pattern, at other times a more roughly hewn exploration of texture and material – they are each a translation of media, from music and film as well as fashion, into the language of painting. In watching, for example, the films of Eric Rohmer, Gunnarsson found a particular outfit alluring, and translated its patterns into a loose set of instructions with which to create a canvas.

    This clothing sensibility carries over to how the artist exhibits her paintings too. “When I present my work in a space I have this idea I’m styling an outfit, so different sizes of paintings refer to different items of clothing: a long one may be a trouser, a small one is an accessory, like a handbag.” What Gunnarsson will show in the final exhibition is still being made – but it provides a chance for her to dress the building in its current form one last time.

  • Catinca Malaimare

    Catinca Malaimare

    Lewis Khan/Courtesy the Royal Academy of Arts, London

  • “Over the past four years, I’ve used the Royal Academy’s architecture quite a lot,” says her fellow student Catinca Malaimare. “It felt like quite a good architectural proposition.” Malaimare’s work involves choreographed performances, which, in the past, have involved the artist slowly moving among and intertwined with items such as lighting rigs and video screens. The history of the various sites where she has performed – including a former prison and a railway arch – inform her final works, which are, more broadly, interested in the parallel histories of surveillance and image-making. Often fractured through installations that make use of video and photography, Malaimare’s physical performances become encounters between the fragility of the human body and the faded utopian potential of technology.

    Each of Malaimare’s works starts life as an exploration of artefacts from the near past. “I’m interested in prototypes”, the artist says, “in bastard technologies that are redundant in many ways – ghost technology, things that needed time to reacquire their beauty again.” This includes a pair of space-helmet-shaped video screens that electronics manufacturer Philips produced in the 1980s, which in her work Discoverer Space Helmet II (2021) become objects to lounge and lie upon, as if to find some sort of comfort in these strange new-age cushions. From plastic coils of LED lights to larger inflating parabolic lights, items become animated props that transform into something more: collaborators.

  • Catinca Malaimare, Discoverer Space Helmet II

    Catinca Malaimare, Discoverer Space Helmet II, 2021.

    Courtesy of the artist.

  • Malamaire’s choreography is an attempt, she says, “to see how compatible we are. I like to try to imitate the object, to put myself in its position, but also to treat it like a dance partner. It can be an awkward object to handle, but you interchange between it being a tool and a kind of companion.” Looking towards her final graduate show, Malaimare is developing an installation with large screens, depicting a backdrop of a seemingly infinite warehouse, with row after row of mostly empty metal shelves. The installation will be occasionally punctuated by her slow, exploratory choreography, with Malaimare experimenting with working with other performers for the first time. The artist’s sense of collaboration extends to the sites that house her performances, and in this respect, the RA building has been one of her most consistent partners.

    “It will be an interesting dynamic – this is the space I’ve inhabited and performed underneath for four years,” Malaimare points out. On the verge of the building’s change of architecture and character, the final exhibition will be a parting gesture to an old friend: “The ending of the performance will be about saying goodbye to the building, giving it thanks for being under my feet and acting as another performer. I’ll kneel down and give the floor a kiss.”

    Visit the RA Schools Show 2022

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