Newcastle University’s fine art department is one of the most highly regarded and popular in the country and the annual degree show gives you an idea why.
For a start, the exhibition offers a glimpse of the tremendous facilities available to the fine art students.
As well as the Hatton Gallery, a venerable space now managed by Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, there are the generous studios, many with high ceilings and flooded with natural light.
Then there is that intangible quality, reputation. This is where art luminaries such as Victor Pasmore, Richard Hamilton and Lawrence Gowing taught and where Bryan Ferry was a student.
The musician is backing a £3.5m plan to develop the gallery and the Heritage Lottery Fund has already pledged £154,000.
The Hatton has an inspiring art collection, the jewel in the crown being Kurt Schwitters’ Merz Barn, a modern art fixture which was rescued in the 1960s by Hamilton and sets a benchmark for aspiring undergraduates.
Small wonder some 600 students apply annually for about 60 available places. The university can afford to be choosy. Interesting, too, that the vast majority of fine art students are from the UK whereas other departments recruit heavily from overseas.
Well, you might grump, what use is a fine art degree when set alongside medicine or engineering? Visit this exhibition and you will get your answer.
Prof Andrew Burton, head of fine art, said this had been a good year. On a lightning tour up staircases and along corridors, doors opened on many arresting spectacles amounting to a wellspring of creativity that clearly can be channelled into many areas of work.
Andrew told me: “Some will go on to do postgraduate studies in fine art. Some will become teachers and some will go out into the general visual arts world as curators or professional artists.
“Some will become advertising copywriters, film-makers or university academics. Others will do things that are totally different and unexpected.
“Many more will stay in the region than used to be the case because there are so many more opportunities for artists than there used to be.
“There are lots of studios available now but when I graduated there was nothing.”
One who plans to stay is 22-year-old Phil Frankland, from Essex. After posing obligingly in front of his oil paintings on aluminium, he said: “I’m hoping to get some temporary studio space. Newcastle is a great city and it’s flourished in the last five years, I think.”
What else caught my eye? Lots. The phrase embarrassment of riches springs to mind.
In the gallery are robust steel sculptures by Nicholas Faulkner and some beautiful abstract paintings by Leila Lawrence. Some intriguing moving image work, too, by various students.
“There’s an incredible diversity this year,” said Andrew. “We are really a making department. We have really good workshops and facilities for that. There has been a resurgence this year of fairly straightforward painting which is good to see.”
There are lots of good paintings. I found Nicholas Permain’s canvases intriguing and with a riddle or two lurking beneath the surface. Newcastle-born, his CV says he won something called the Hix Award in 2013. The judging panel was impressive.
Andrew closed the door of a windowless studio so we could enjoy Hazel Brill’s multi-media homage to Aphrodite comprising mutliple screens and a plaster cast of a piece of Roman statuary.
These mostly headless and armless relics used to be props in life drawing classes but now tend to lurk like shiftless long-term unemployed. One, at least, has found gainful 21st Century employment in a beguiling audio-visual work exhibiting skills ancient and modern.
Across the corridor Rosie Wowk adopted a low-tech approach, summoning up the atmosphere of the favela in an installation made of wood and cardboard and illuminated by water-filled plastic bottles.
Beauty is to be found in Jennifer Bucknell’s painted glass creations which play all sorts of tricks in the light. They are fragile but would grace many a colourless internal space.
Simply jaw-dropping are Heidi Dent’s suspended upside down mushroom made of torn and knotted sheets and Gemma Herries’ dangling specimen bags containing... well, who knows what? These works will enthral or repel. You can’t ignore them.
The exhibition, well worth a visit, is open until Saturday, 9am to 5pm. Some of the work then goes to London to be displayed in a group show at The Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane (July 4-8).