Graduate exhibitions are always a mishmash of artworks, a showcase of disparate ideas and media from artists that in most cases have only been practising for a short number of years. At their best, one can feel the energy of a cohort of graduates that have been propelled and supported by one another while testing out concepts and materials in close proximity. At their worst these exhibitions can feel tired and undercooked, as if the students didn’t really enjoy their time at art school at all. For this year’s offerings at Melbourne’s three fine art institutions – Monash University, Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) and Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) – each graduate exhibition was held across the fine art departments themselves, in the studios where the artworks were made. These spaces are turned upside down to become makeshift galleries, a maze of small partitioned rooms and nooks where any kind of space is deemed fit to house artworks. As a result, both the RMIT and Monash University graduation exhibitions suffered at points, when there just wasn’t enough room for artworks to breathe.
The VCA exhibition was the strongest of the three schools, and within it, Natasha Madden stood out with a subtle and melancholic exhibition of paintings, photographs and found materials drawn from in and around her family home. Having combined flower pollen and oil paint, Madden used the concoction to paint a series of grimy and textured abstractions on unstretched canvases. Similar to the delightfully grubby works of John Spiteri, these abstractions carry an inherent tension: between the close proximity to nature required to harvest the flower pollen, and the way in which the materials function on the canvas. Alongside the paintings were faded photographs documenting other works by Madden that had been placed in her family home. The photos show a work hung beside the family television; a work made of jumper lint next to piles of clothing stacked on a dressing table; and another near a portrait of her grandmother. The paintings were barely visible next to the all the other objects that make up the home, revealing the delicate way in which Madden negotiates her artistic presence within the context of family and locality.
The work of Madden’s VCA colleague Beth Caird was equally engaging. In her two films Going to the sauna and Rules for leaving a small town, Caird presented open-ended video essays that reflected on difficulties of female self-definition in both public and personal realms. Going to the sauna presents a collection of Mariah Carey video clips with everything but Carey herself obliterated by a green screen. With the sound also muted, the emphasis was firmly on her hyper-sexualised movements, and subtitles became the pop star’s new mode of communication. Lines such as ‘avert your gaze you know me’ and ‘clubber blubber’ created a subversive and self-aware portrayal of the pop star. By contrast, the second film was much more low-key, featuring dialogue from the artist’s family and narration from the artist. The family have come together to bury a loved one named Helen, and Caird offers private reflections on her interactions with those on camera, as well as reflections upon her own influences as a female artist. Quite abruptly the film cuts to a scantily clad prepubescent girl, dancing before a mirror in an unnerving imitation of Carey in the previous video. Caird has an ability to draw footage and narrative together in a way that opens up contradictory points of view and complicates her subject matter.
At Monash University’s graduation exhibition, James Ratsasane’s paintings had a wonderful playfulness both in terms of form and material. The salon hang of the paintings draw inspiration from album cover design, modernist abstraction and pop art, and was thrown together in a manner reminiscent collage aesthetic of Robert Rauschenberg. His rough and ready approach to materials was quite refreshing: the backs of canvases became a ledge for other works to perch, offcuts of wood dipped in paint became simple paintings, and other paintings favoured gestural mark-making over more structured geometrical forms.
Graduate exhibitions as a whole are rather unwieldy beasts, lurching from one artist to the other without any kind of conceptual thread. Rather than seeking curatorial cohesion, one hopes to stumble upon works that hint at a greater logic within a budding artistic practice.