On a rainy Friday afternoon in the charming foyer of the Williamson Gallery in Birkenhead I met with Vinny Lavell, Course Leader for the Fine Art Degree programme at Wirral Metropolitan College, to chat about his thoughts on this years’ graduation show. Vinny is a practicing artist with over thirty years’ experience and before moving to Wirral Met he was Educational Curator at Tate Liverpool.
We agreed to meet in the gallery so that we could be near the exhibition and although I had seen the
exhibition a few days before I ensured that I arrived early so that I could have another look around.
Once again I was struck by the variety of work and themes on display and was pleasantly surprised to
find so much painting so my first question came from this observation…
There are a lot of paintings in the exhibition and I was thinking about how it seemed to go out of favour at one stage and wondered if you think that this was the case and if so, whether you think that it has come back?
There are 3 reasons why I think that people may have thought that
painting may have run its course
One of which is it has been overtaken by technology – for example, photography – there is no need to
paint a picture when you can take a photograph, so there’s a technological thing about it.
One is a critical criticism about it – it’s kind of run its course. What else has painting got to say? And
it’s associated with a certain, I suppose, hierarchical approach to art. Oil painting seemed to be a
thing of the past in terms of its critical stance, or cultural weight shall we say.
The third reason is, I think, just the sheer expansion of art media not just technology but the
expansion of the so called sculptural field and that kind of idea where sculpture encompasses
everything now from a photograph to a bucket of water. Maybe against that kind of diversity painting
seemed very conservative in its concerns but having said that I think painting has come back and I
think it comes back every ten years or so. It came back in the eighties, after the 70’s, and it came
back in the nineties with Saatchi’s painting shows and it’s back in fashion now because of people like
Gerhard Richter and Lucien Freud’s recent death.
I think the death of painting is often exaggerated and it comes back every so often and I think what’s
happened recently is that people are now making paintings that are acknowledging that history, if
you see what I mean, they are not pretending they are painting and all of these things have never
happened so for example you might get paintings now that make reference to photography or
make reference to digital imagery. So I think that the technological developments have just been
incorporated into painting.
You could say that, in terms of this exhibition, the Abby Shanahan paintings of war reference photography.
That’s right. So I think that it’s not a question that things get superseded by a
particular technology, it’s like they all get absorbed and reused in lots of different ways. So I think
painting, if you look around this exhibition but also if you look at the national picture, has got a large
presence in the contemporary art scene anyway for example Gary Hulme and Fiona Rae. The big
shows like Richter was a sell out so I think people are still interested in painting and I think it still has
an attraction for people who want to make paintings. The process itself is important rather than ‘how
do I get an image’ as the process of painting involves a certain amount of, I suppose, enjoyment and
an engagement with the subject.
Related to this is the notion of ‘trends’ and what’s in ‘fashion’. Do you think it is possible for students to resist such ‘trends’ in their art practice?
I think obviously individual students may go to an exhibition and think ‘wow that’s fantastic’ but I think that the conservative forces present are stronger than that. People have an idea and they’ll have normally a relatively conservative view of
what they can do and what they want to do.
So college is the opportunity to push the realms of their work? I think that when people come
into college they are not restricted by what contemporary art might do, they are restricted by their own
idea about what art might be. I think that it is only with an engagement with modern art and having
that argument about what is the job of contemporary art, what does it do, how does it do that? It is
only by having that kind of discussion within their studies that opens up the possibilities to them.
Are you saying are there dominant fashion trends?
Yes. It’s a really interesting question in that there are critically ‘hot’ ways of working that come and go. So it is easy to spot trends in the way that contemporary art is made so, for example, last year you could find artists using stuffed animals in contemporary art, taxidermy, and that something like that will become a dominant way of presenting art let’s say. And then one year there may be a dominance of people making large scales works of art in site specific locations. There are trends in that sense. I don’t think students are unduly influenced by that, in fact I don’t think students engage enough with them to be honest.
Do you not?
No, not always. I don’t think that is just my students I think that is art students more
What is unique about the exhibition this year?
For us? One thing is that it is an all women show. It’s just an accident the way things worked out this year but it is an all-female show. So it’s not foregrounded by many of the artists, apart from Emma Gough – in her make-up paintings and
to some extent the domestic scenes that have been used as installations. It’s not a feminist show
in any sense but when you begin to look at it, despite the diversity of the types of media used, it is
possible to have a gendered view I guess. So for example Barbara Swan’s figures, they are very
much about women’s experience and endurance. She is older artist and she is very much making art
about women’s experiences. Those shroud like images are meant to be a testimony, or document, to
women’s experiences. So to almost contradict myself, below the surface I suppose there are some
gender specific ways of thinking about the world.
I suppose you could say that while it is not necessarily feminist in political terms it is a definite female view.
Absolutely, there is a very female aspect to it despite the diversity of the work that is on
I think there is a strong social comment element at work. Natalie O’Hare, her piece is all about
political sloganeering and party politics over the past hundred years. We’ve got pieces of work about
the Afghan war; we’ve got pieces of work about homelessness and derelict homes – housing issues
in Liverpool. We’ve got a piece about Englishness and Britishness and how we define our national
identity. So our students are not just expressing themselves in the field but are engaged in some real
social issues that are part of the current scene.
Is that something that you see present in every year?
I think it changes. I suppose in terms of the way we teach on the course we try to get our third year students, in particular, to look outside the studio and see their work in a wider context. For some students that translates in to ‘issue based’
work, as it were, whereas for others it is a less foregrounded type of concern.
Your later work references classical paintings and I was wondering what references, and
inspirations, you see in this exhibition?
There is an interesting debate that students quite often have with themselves about how original they are and I think sometimes that they would like to make a piece of work that is very fresh and very original and are a bit disappointed that someone else in the 1969’s or 1970’s has already done it, whereas I think that is a good thing. It’s no surprise that
someone has thought the same things as you. The idea of original art is overrated in a way but I
understand why people want to make their work unique. Clearly over the years people have similar
experiences and ideas and they articulate them in similar ways so I’m never worried if for example a
student creates a piece of work that others may slot into a certain pigeon hole. So for example Lucy-
Grace Atkinson’s geometric abstract paintings, people might associate them with Mondrian or Ben
Nicholson or in more contemporary terms, Sarah Morris who is making reference back to those very masculine, macho I suppose forms of modernism. So I think in Morris’ case, for example, I think it’s a
quite positive thing, it’s a fresh take on an old subject.
We do encourage students to look at examples of contemporary art that create a context for what
they are doing, we have specific assignments that get them to go and look at Liverpool Biennial for
example and try to establish in their own mind where their practice fits within contemporary art but
also history as well.
What would you say about the show overall?
In terms of the personal story of this exhibition these students have managed lots of different things happening, we’ve had accommodation changes and changes in assessment and time tables for example, and they have responded to these challenges with a maturity and in a very practical pragmatic way without getting upset and without ‘throwing the
toys out of the pram’ as it were. So I think they have shown a lot of grit.
I think the work is kind of modest in its scale and they have made their limited economic means go a
long way really. These are not students with a lot of money that they can throw at their degree show
and I think that sometimes if you can hire big screens, big camera you can make your degree show
look very professional. I think these students have achieved a lot with modest means and maybe
you can read that, I suppose, as part of a gender reading of the show. In the past when we have had
male students in the show there have been large constructions, large scale expensive installations, so
I guess that maybe one way of thinking about it.
That is one other thing that is noticeable that there is no large scale sculpture so maybe that is linked?
Well the sculpture that is there is very delicate. There is a collection of ceramic pieces
which are table top ceramic pieces, the domestic environment and all of that which you could read as
somehow gendered. But part of the reason for that is the makeup of the group which we have talked
about and part of the reason is that this is the first show that we have had at Wirral Metropolitan
College that was assessed at college and not here in the gallery as it has been in the past, this is a
selection of the assessed work. In the past when it was here I suppose that magnified people’s desire
to make more of a splash in the public arena of the gallery whereas this year the work was assessed
in the studios and the paintings and sculpture had to fit into the studio first. But I don’t think people
changed their work that much I just think it is a more modest scale but still engaging with political
and social issues, and all those other issues, it is just less rhetorical, demonstrative that it might have
been in the past.
Have the students curated it themselves?
It’s a group show so they work with the staff to curate it. We don’t just give people a slot on the wall we deliver the work here and then with a number of working groups we decide where the work will go. We edit the work and position it and that is part of the module, the module requires them to present a public exhibition and publication of the work.
So they create the catalogue themselves?
Yes, they’ve selected, edited and produced the catalogue themselves.
Finally, I was wondering where do you think the students go next after this? Do you think
Merseyside is a good place for artist?
I think it’s getting better. I think in the past Merseyside has always had lots of artists but what it has got now that it didn’t have in the past is a number of strong artist networks and studio groupings. I think there is a range of venues for students and postgraduate students to get involved in such as the Royal Standard and METAL. I think there is a very healthy art scene on Merseyside definitely compared to the 1980’s. There have always been artists on Merseyside but I think they have always tended to be very individual whereas I think now artists are much more collective and organised about how they survive after college.
So I think there are more opportunities and in terms of where the students go next a range of them
go into teaching or post-graduate study and I think a lot of them are keen to continue to make
work in the public space. The kind of work they are making as the scale of it is flexible, you can
imagine them exhibiting in all kinds of different spaces, it is not dependant on this huge space. Kirsty
Cooper’s photographs, for example, could easily be in a small display somewhere. So I think they are
I agree, I think Liverpool/Merseyside seems to be quite buzzing at the moment. Absolutely, it’s
a rather strange quirk of economics that in a harder economic period people seem to get together in a
more collective way and make things happen. It’s a strange thing.
Well that’s great and it’s been really interesting. Thank you.