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Gray's brings degree shows to a close

Veteran Scots artist and writer John Byrne has long been critical of the training students receive at art school, and as his own retrospective opened at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery last week, he took the opportunity to let rip to the assembled media.

"They don't teach drawing at art schools anymore," he told one interviewer. "It's tragic. They're producing egos and toys. It's all emptiness and play and 'make an impact' and that's not what art is all about."

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I read Byrne's words as I sat on a train back to Glasgow from Aberdeen, where I'd just spent a few hyper-stimulating hours looking at the work of 51 students graduating in fine art from the city's Gray's School of Art.

The Gray's show was the fourth degree show I've seen in as many weeks, and while it's true you don't see much pure drawing and painting any more at these presentations of work by graduating art students, you'll still find standout work made by artists who make recognisable marks on paper or canvas. By the same token, you'll find standout work on which no actual drawing has impinged.

In Degree Show Land, boundaries are crossed all over the place. Sculpture students are sewing or acting, printmakers are creating textile works, painters are making 3D objects and graphic designers are making films. It's a mystery as to why there are even disciplines in art schools any more because it doesn't count for much when it comes to students' final presentations.

In Aberdeen, I was much taken with the work of Catherine Ross, an outstanding painter, who has also created quite delicate and beautiful sculptural work from flotsam and jetsam, all based around the theme of "North". Already garlanded by awards, she is a name to watch.

Printmaker Meryl Forsyth has produced a set of lyrical and lovely photo etchings informed by a childhood spent growing up in rural north-east Scotland. I also liked the paintings of Karen Castle-Anderson, who also presents a sculptural element in her show, consisting of memorabilia from the First World War, including barbed wire from German trenches.

Sophie Will's lo-fi look through an imaginary telescope at the wondrous world of astronomy is braw. I bought a ridiculously cheap (£15) print from her which summed up for me the process of looking at degree shows and writing about them for this newspaper. "Just what are we looking at with our radio eyes" asks this surreal little work. I loved Will's haiku-style take on deep space. She has even created a little blacked-out starry-night portal in the art school's garden area at which tells you is "Best Observed Horizontally" as you climb inside.

There are gems to be found all around the 48-year-old building at Garthdee, which is due to be replaced by a newer model in three years' time.

Arlene Searle's presentation makes a visual virtue out of the stuff we throw away. In the centre of her space, she has a perspex box filled with the contents of a vacuum cleaner. String and masking tape also figure heavily in her draped textiles work, occasionally gilded. Look closely and there are also tiny interventions of gold on the grey nondescript flooring. Delicate and lovely, with a feminist heart.

Jade Anderson has taken the 50 shades of grey granite from Aberdeen's landmark buildings and doused them with colour, which sounds garish, but works. Death comes cheerfully through Ericka Maskame Smith's exploration in black and white woodcuts of cultures which celebrate the act of dying. They are bold, memorable and confident.

Sculpture graduate Daniel Massie describes himself as a Professional Meryl Streep Fan. I caught one of his short improvised performances in which he sits down unannounced on a chair set against a photography studio backdrop and talks directly to an absent presence, tense yet conversational. I hadn't a clue about the cinematic reference points but left feeling I'd earwigged in on an intimate tete a tete. Acting or art? I'm not sure, but it moved me.

I found Kirstin Clark pacing barefoot around the four walls of a wooden "pen" in the sculpture hall, clad in filthy white vest and black leggings. Skimming a piece of charcoal along the white wall of the pen, the scoring sound was surprisingly violent. As her footsteps wore out a charcoal spattered pattern on the white powdered floor, I couldn't stop watching this Shamanic trance-like work.

Nearby, Eilidh McCormick was examining the ways in which we techno-humans communicate in our modern world. She had placed a dozen large Apple Mac monitors in a small space. Most depict jangling colour and soundwaves, while a few showed figures wandering around a room. After a short while looking and listening, you realise the distorted sound and visuals are those outside looking at other work.

I was touched by Ann Marie Coll's installation of battered suitcases with small projections of filmed seascapes on each one. Her show is dedicated to the memory of Kevin Coll, pictured at the tiller of a boat against a blue north-east sky.

Max Boyla's large still life installation features a stage set of objects he found around Aberdeen. Framed by fronds of video tape which catch the light beguilingly, your eye wanders from whirring umbrellas to artificial suns framed by an old basket to suspended chairs. On the three walls facing it all, Boyla has painted quite beautiful little representations of the scene.

So far, so lyrical, life-affirming - and mashed up. I left feeling anything but empty.

Gray's Degree Show 2014, Gray's School of Art, Aberdeen (www.rgu.ac.uk/degreeshow), ends today

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