Art | Wry Society

The graduate degree show

The manoeuvres of one young artist at his final university exhibition propel his parents right out of their comfort zone.

March 06 2011
Vicki Reeve

When she’s being honest with herself, Janie Wilson acknowledges that she’s disappointed in her son Thomas. At Eton, “Tomo” was such a bonny lad; he was in the rugby and cricket teams until he took his GCSEs (11 A*s), and was interested in the armed forces – a source of pride to his father, Giles, who’d reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in record time and hoped Tomo would continue “the family tradition” and go to Sandhurst.

But at 16, Tomo became as skinny, pale and wan as his new idol, Robert Mapplethorpe, and declared that he wanted to pursue not just arts-based A-levels, but a whole “career” (those are his father’s quote marks) as an artist. Janie blamed Tomo’s infatuation with Natalia, a Russian actress/dancer he’d met at one of his overprivileged friends’ 16th-birthday parties. Whatever the reason, it had finally brought them here, six years later, to his graduate degree show in London.

The Wilsons hadn’t seen much of their son’s work – or, indeed, their son – since he’d been at university and didn’t know what to expect. But during one of Tomo’s visits his parents were heartened when he started asking questions about his family’s illustrious military history. He mentioned he was thinking of basing a project on it and asked if he could scan some photographs (his great-grandfather’s posting in India, his father in Northern Ireland, etc). He was fascinated by his father’s uniform, and Giles was so flattered by this that it wasn’t long before he’d agreed to lend it to Tomo for reference.

As the Wilsons approached the brutalist building where the exhibition was housed – Janie in a peach twinset and pearls, Giles in his summer-weight Savile Row three-piece – they worried that they might be overdressed. But once inside it seemed to them that most of the retro-cool students were in vintage fancy dress, channelling the 1940s, the 1950s and many of them the 1960s – so they blended in rather well (“Just like Vintage at Goodwood,” pronounced Janie).

As they battled through the crowd to the makeshift bar (free warm beer courtesy of the brewery sponsor while stocks lasted, which would be a full 15 minutes), they tried to look impressed by the works on display. The first exhibit challenged all their senses. It paid homage to Turner Prize-winner Chris Ofili’s use of elephant dung by utilising pavement-fresh canine excrement. Giles, spinning on his heel, slipped and, as he put it, “inadvertently interacted with the painting”. Then there were the usual nudes – fine when sensitively executed, but Giles was disturbed by one graphic photograph. He couldn’t, of course, be seen to study it too closely, but the young subject did so remind him of someone. If only she hadn’t got quite so much slap on, he might make her out…

When they finally found Tomo, he was jumpy, which Janie put down to nerves. He was standing by his own creation – a vast, floor-to-ceiling abstract painting. Janie and Giles stood back to get a better look. The forms reminded them of bodies, the camouflage colours of army uniform, but they couldn’t really work it out. Reading the explanatory note, they saw it was an anti-war statement called The Monotone March, based on Yves Klein’s Anthropométries series, for which the artist used “living brushes” (naked models covered in blue paint).

Interested viewers were directed to a side room, where a video of the performance art that created Tomo’s piece was running on a loop. “Oh, you don’t want to see that,” declared the young artist. “It’ll bore you rigid. Come and see... Ru’s embroidered loo roll – much more fun!” He tried to angle his parents away, but they were only here to see their son’s exhibit. Janie saw panic on his face as they stepped inside the film room, to be confronted by images of Tomo in nothing but his father’s wet-paint-covered army jacket rolling around over a canvas as the monotone of machine-gun fire filled the room. When the horrified Wilsons turned to face their son, he’d already retreated.

Worse still, as he stepped outside, it dawned on Giles that the naked girl made up to the nines in the racy photograph was Beth – his own sweet, unspoilt 16-year-old daughter…