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Conceptual art in classes of its own

A Renfrewshire secondary's biennial event allows pupils' work to hang alongside professionals' exhibits. Douglas Blane reports

A Renfrewshire secondary's biennial event allows pupils' work to hang alongside professionals' exhibits. Douglas Blane reports

Conceptual art can be hard to get to grips with. Two dark railway sleepers, a teaspoon in a picture frame and a rusty collection of baked- bean cans are hardly Rembrandt - although there are hints of his Flayed Ox in the shape and feel of the piece by Karla Black (pictured right), made from torn sugar paper and spray paint, hanging from the ceiling at St Columba's School, Kilmacolm.

"It's called Help Is Not Appealing," says head of art and design Helen Mathie. "It was shortlisted for the Turner Prize last year and we've got it insured for pound;15,000 while it's here."

Once every two years, St Columba's allows the pent-up colour and creativity confined in the art department to spill out and spread around its corridors and halls. It's an event eagerly anticipated by the local community and the school's pupils. "It gives them a chance to exhibit their work alongside that of established artists," says Mrs Mathie. "It inspires them."

She pauses in her guided tour at a display of big blobs of colour that prove, on closer inspection, to be dinner-plates decorated with Picasso images. "These are some of my favourites," she says. "They're so vivid and flamboyant. Our second-years did them. Picasso was always pleased with his work when it looked childlike. He would have liked these. Aren't they gorgeous?"

They are indeed, as are the paintings and drawings, shoes, bags, prints and striking masks, made to express, rather than conceal, emotions. Much of the work on display is traditional design or representational art. Some of it is abstract. But it's the conceptual art installations, and the pupils' work inspired by them, that are stimulating most discussion.

"Isn't it interesting that you can put a teaspoon in a frame or a ladder against a wall in an exhibition and it becomes art?" says Jamie Edmundson (S6). "It makes you look at the world in a different way. I'm not saying you should value such work above a beautiful painting. But it does make you think - which is what art is about."

The Karla Black motivated Jamie to create his own installation, he says. "I studied a sheet on the washing-line, the random patterns, the poetry of how it moved, the way it changed and resonated with the human form. I suspended it from points on the ceiling using transparent line, so every part was different. It now looks like it's falling but suspended in time and space."

Jamie is headed for art school, he says, but hasn't yet chosen a specialism. "Design would lead to a secure job, but art excites me more. You want to keep coming back to it. I'm quite good at physics and maths but they don't confuse me, they don't make me question things. Art does."

Former pupil Abigail Beall, back from university to visit the exhibition and display paintings inspired by the particle detectors that discovered the Higgs, started from a similar position to Jamie. But she took the opposite route, she says. "I was good at art and science at school, and decided to study physics.

"It's a very visual science, so art aids your understanding - especially for things you can't see, such as quantum mechanics. There is scope too, I believe, for using art to communicate science to people, without the mathematics."

The most appealing aspect of art is that everyone can do it, says Mrs Mathie. "We bring it out of them. We show them what fun they can have. We build on skills they already possess. It's about understanding the world by reinterpreting it, by putting things in different places."

Down in the main hall, something seems to be in the wrong place. Pop Up Bothy, an installation by former pupil James Mitchell, is attracting lots of visitors, who leave the big white space on the stage little wiser than when they entered.

"It's inspired by the Scottish bothy idea," James explains. "So it's free for use and always open. But it has nothing in it. It has no function. That is its point.

"It's getting at the issue between the futility of art and the functionality of architecture. I put it for six months in a public space in Peckham, then in a few galleries around London. I might disassemble it now and show it unfolded. But it would need to be a massive wall - like the Turbine Hall."

Robyn Wilson (S5) has less lofty ambitions for her art than Tate Modern, she says. "I'll probably study art history, which will allow me to continue with art and writing. Poetry is my passion but I love art too. It's another way to express what I'm trying to do in my writing. Conceptual artworks, like the Turner prize exhibits upstairs, are like poetry in the way they raise questions in your mind. They make you think."

Education and inspiration is what the exhibition is all about, says Mrs Mathie, leading the way to the school door, past two rather lovely landscapes on the wall. "They're mine," she says. "That's my style - very traditional. But art is about opening your mind to possibilities. It is fascinating to see the directions pupils take with their art.

"I'm convinced it has a greater impact than they realise and that art creeps into whatever they do when they leave this school."

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