The final year exhibition of work by students from Glasgow School of Art’s MFA programme is always a topic for discussion for artists in Scotland. This year’s show was no exception. The usual questions ensued. Was it a good vintage? What did you think of this work? Who do think will stay in Scotland? And so on.
One particular focus in 2008 was on the work of Scottish artist Carla Scott Fullerton whose sculptural installations were shown in the upper foyer of Glasgow’s Tramway. In this situation, Fullerton’s work undoubtedly benefited from having space to breathe and the opportunity to be seen (almost) in isolation from that of fellow graduates.
It is probably a truism (and an irony) that work primarily concerned with process and materiality can often be dry, stiff or sterile for the observer. The immersion and intensity generated for the artist in the making is difficult to convey to the viewer and can too often seem like diaristic self-indulgence, a visual statement which says, ‘I love this material—this is how much I have connected with it’.
Fullerton’s work, in theory at least, could initially be seen as an example of this. Unusually though, pieces such as ‘Structural Pour’, 2008, and the ‘Cancellation Plate’ series, 2008, are tougher than expected. There’s something visceral and energised about them which brings them beyond mere formalist exercise and engages the viewer on both an aesthetic and emotional level.
It is fierce work, jagged and physical—qualities emphasised by a slick, spare presentation. We are seeing the results of an artist who expresses a heightened sensitivity to material and form, and explores her relationship with these materials through the process of making.
Perhaps the use of cement makes it easier for the viewer to connect—almost everyone has seen cement being mixed, poured or cast—we have stepped in wet cement, inscribed our names in pavements, seen the whirl and churn of a mixer. This is not to say that Fullerton is seeking to democratise her work through the use of quotidian and industrial materials (steel, cement, plaster) but the consistency and appearance of cement lends a certain earthiness and tactility to an otherwise uninviting material in a fine art context. The interest in cement in particular is, however, more serendipity than design—the outcome of a forgotten bag of the stuff left behind in Fullerton’s MFA studio by a previous occupant.
Mixed by hand, the cement is poured in such a way as to allow the material to take on a life of its own, to go its own way. The resulting forms are loose, imperfect and sculptural. The substance seems to maintain its liquidity, falling in organic pools beneath the tight, angular wooden forms which project up from the centre of the work.
The technique of pouring has been a long-standing interest for Fullerton, who trained as a painter before moving to Glasgow in 2002. As an undergraduate at the University of Cumbria she experimented with pouring paint and continued to explore this method in her transition to sculptural ways of working.
In works such as those seen at Tramway, the artist has sought to liberate cement (which has to be poured whatever its function) from the typical architectural confinements of cladding, moulding or casting in shutters.
Yet her work is in many respects informed by architecture and architectonic form. She intends to spend some time post-MFA experimenting with scale and pursuing her research into architectural semiotics, specifically the way in which architectural materials can express social or cultural codes (how the status, economy, use or age of a building, for example, is often connoted as much by the materials of its construction as the style or ornament).
In her smaller works, Fullerton uses graph paper in a manner at odds with the delicacy and lightness of the work of a number of Scottish artists using the once-ubiquitous ‘colored pencil, parcel tape and graph paper’ oeuvre . Her drawings retain a sense of fragility, but do so because they have been ripped, torn, crumpled and marked with poured cement. They reference the larger works through the use of the same materials—this time as drawing tools. A tension is captured between the heaviness of the industrial material and the subtlety and weightlessness of the paper.
While it may not be intentional, these works on paper seem to mark an end to the preciousness associated with lo-fi scraps of whimsy, tacked to a white wall. The use of graph paper also alludes to ideas and methods associated again with architecture and, simultaneously, the chronology of Fullerton’s own working methods —graph paper is the foundation for street planning and city grids; cement is the basis for construction—graph paper is used for planning, cement comes later. While they are led by process and materials, Fullerton’s works display a strong interest in structure and layering in both a literal and symbolic sense.
The way in which this might translate across art forms and disciplines is an area Fullerton would like to develop—she has expressed an interest in future collaborations with writers and performers in order to explore how artists in these fields might adopt similar working methods in terms of the structure, layering, materials and construction of their practice.
The ‘Cancellation Plate’ series—found etching plates burnt, scarred and corroded by acid, again applied by pouring—draw attention to the ability of architecture and sculpture to command and occupy a space and to enforce interaction, or, as Fullerton has commented, to ‘place the viewer in precarious and/or unpredictable encounters’.
This, of course, has been an enduring interest in the history of sculpture in the expanded field but is no less significant or relevant in a contemporary context, as artists such as Fullerton continue to explore these relationships. The works, which were wall-based at Tramway, forcing the viewer to avoid their sharp projecting edges, will be recomposed and placed on the floor when the MFA show tours to Berlin.
For now, post-MFA, Fullerton shows no signs of taking a break, with travel plans and numerous future commitments lining up. The recipient of this year’s Glasgow Sculpture Studios’ Graduate Scholarship Award, she continues to develop her practice, while completing the MFA Graduate Fellowship with a solo show next year.
Susannah Thompson is a lecturer at Edinburgh College of Art