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Conceptualise this

Nigel Williamson looks at an imaginative approach to A-level art

"We start off with traditional representational art and teach the basic rules," says Stephen Hoult, head of art at Latymer School in Edmonton, north London. "But, by Year 10, we've left that sort of didactic approach behind. We begin to show them how in art rules are made to be broken."

All around his art room is evidence of conventions being flouted. Pupils work with latex, rubber and wire, while in the middle of the studio sits a pile of concrete posts from one of last year's projects. It's the sort of scene that would give conservative critics a heart attack - an entire generation of young conceptualists from whose number the next Tracy Emin and the new Damien Hirst may one day emerge. The style may be radical, but the results achieved by Stephen Hoult, with Gillian Lyons and Vicky Gould, the other two staff members of Latymer's art department, are remarkable.

Last year, at AS level, 19 pupils achieved 15 A grades, three Bs and one C.

At A2 level, there were 10 As, nine Bs and two Cs. All but five of the year went on to study art and design or architecture at university. Admittedly, in a voluntary-aided grammar school, motivation is high and students receive plenty of encouragement from home. But in the five years he has been at Latymer, Stephen Hoult has transformed the art department in a school more traditionally noted for its excellence in music, with five orchestras, a concert band and several choirs.

"I think we've created an ethos which says to students: 'Think about what you want to do, take it seriously and we'll support it.'

"You have to make them feel in control," he says. "There's still the belief that visual representation is the best art. We help them to challenge that perception."

On the morning of my visit, around a dozen Year 13 students were working on a project begun in September on the theme of space. By February, they were expected to have produced a conceptual work and a 3,000-word dissertation.

The imagination on display was stunning. Samat Geris (17), of Palestinian descent, was working on a series of fabric circles. "I've worked with different materials, including clay and metal. But I'm most attracted to textiles," she said. "I like the idea of space within a circle which has many different perspectives. It can look big or small, depending on where you stand."

Initially the concept was daunting, she admitted. "How do you approach something as open-ended as that? It made everyone think and there's a real challenge to it. But everyone came up with something different and we all discuss and critique each other's work. You move away from your initial idea as you go on and probably end up with something quite different. It's like a journey of discovery."

Laura Rowland admitted she was a little behind with her space project, since she had been concentrating on her dissertation on the definition of beauty. "But I want to look at space as an aesthetic," she said. A visit to the Anish Kapoor installation at the Tate Modern provided inspiration, and she eventually settled on the concept of hidden spaces.

"You know they're there but at the same time you don't really know what they look like," she explained. "So it's about imagined worlds which take you somewhere you don't quite understand. " She was making latex imprints of the space behind and between radiators, producing a series of fantastic rippling patterns. "I'm testing different textures at the moment," she said. "I think the eventual piece will be really big. I want to take a hidden space and expose it, so it could fill the whole room from floor to ceiling."

While Samat was looking at space in terms of circles, Hanna Morgan's approach was more cuboid, experimenting with a series of wooden boxes and triangles with mirrors on the inside. "I'm interested in the claustrophobic nature of enclosed spaces, and shadows and distortion," she said. Her enjoyment of the subversive potential of conceptual art was obvious. Making a series of receptacles in a ceramics project last year, she imaginatively fashioned hers out of string.

Hannah Peatty had a different approach again; she was interested in the claustrophobia of constricted spaces. Her fascination with textiles and fashion led her to the idea of a dress resembling a straitjacket. "It's about how people can control your movement through the design of the space around you. And I also like the idea that when the work is exhibited the viewer can not only touch it and feel it but try it on," she said.

Stephen Hoult is justifiably proud of how the students took up the challenge. "I asked them to look at the relationship between public spaces and private acts and issues of access and movement and angles and interaction," he says. "And to get them going we looked at other artists and their concept of space."

In particular, they looked at the work of Rachel Whiteread. Every Easter, the department organises a trip to New York. This year, students visited a Whiteread exhibition at the Guggenheim, and looked at "how she mixes spaces and captures their physical aspect with casting".

The space project is typical of the Latymer method. "We're frustrated by the approach of exam boards, because it's so formulaic. It's all about ticking boxes and they don't really get the full picture of what we do here," Gillian Lyons says. "But we find ways of pushing the boundaries within the curriculum," adds Stephen Hoult. "We try to think across ideas and concepts and always contextualise what we do.

"When we do brainstorming around a topic, at first lots of cliched ideas come up. But we get students to think beyond the cliches. We're looking for a mentor relationship rather than telling them what to do. They feel they are developing a style that is all their own."

This approach begins on the GCSE course, which currently finds 24 pupils each pursuing different projects. "It would be easier to have them all doing the same thing," Stephen Hoult admits. "But that wouldn't be right because it wouldn't be as effective in encouraging them to use their own imagination." He has noticed that students taken in from other schools at Year 12 , who have not experienced the Latymer approach at GCSE level, sometimes find difficulty in adjusting. "They join us and it's evident that all they've done before is a pastiche of other artists' work. Some can even feel intimidated by what we ask of them and so you have to support and lift them. It usually takes about a month, but they soon get it and begin to develop their own style."

Finally, how would he account for the department's success?

"I'd say it's about providing inspiration, facilitating the development of students' own ideas and then helping them to establish quality," he says.

And, of course, showing them that rules are made to be broken.

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