For an open exhibition seemingly dedicated to a single technique, the ‘Jerwood Drawing Prize’ casts a wide net. Upon entering the Jerwood Space, you do find landscapes, still lives and portraits rendered poignantly in graphite. But there is also the unexpected. Video art, sculpture, digital art, and textiles – things I never expected to find in an exhibition about drawing – mingle with these more traditional offerings.
This wide scope has been a cornerstone of the project since it was founded in 1994. The longest running and largest annual open exhibition for drawing in the UK, it has developed a reputation for celebrating the considerable diversity that exists within contemporary drawing practice. As the 2017 iteration shows, it is also a platform that highlights the value of drawing in both an artistic practice and within communities.
Gary Laurence’s monumental drawing ‘Yellow Kalymnos and Fridge Magnets’ (2017) won the prestigious first prize. A depiction of the Greek island Kalymnos rendered in black felt pen on a yellow painted canvas, this is the second time Laurence has taken the top spot. It is a detailed composition – in addition to reproducing the view from a popular tourist site, Lawrence draws attention to the tat for sale on the side of the road. He zooms in on the boards of magnets, annotating their slogans with comments of his own: ‘Athens – never been here’, ‘Cyprus ‘08 ok-ish’, ‘Zante Town – Euro Spar’. It is immediately striking and is an absorbing meditation on tourism, landscape and personal narrative.
Equally as engaging was the winner of the second prize: a video by Ana Mendes titled ‘On Drawing’ (2017). In the piece, a French maid explains how she uses drawing in order to stay engaged with her community. As she cannot read or write, drawing is a vital tool in her life, facilitating communication and strengthening her relationships. It is an intimate view: the camera stays close to the small, tattered notebook in the woman’s hands, and the drawings we’re shown could only be valuable and legible to her. Through their modesty, however, Mendes is able to highlight the essential position drawing has in the world.
This example of how drawing can be a tool that allows us to both examine and develop our relationships is picked up in another video in the exhibition, Eilsa Alaluusua’s ‘The Arctic Circle (part II)’ (2017). In the piece, a figure slowly makes its way through a field of snow, creating large rings and spirals. As we see the growing patterns and the steady progress from afar, we’re also shown a pair of boots trudging laboriously through the heavy snow. The figure struggles for breath and we can hear the effort of the action. There is something childlike, something innately human in the act. We walk forward to see where we’ve come and to see the marks that we’ve made. We create, we play, we take action, even if everything will vanish in the next snowfall or with the coming of spring.
This playful interaction with everyday scenarios is apparent throughout the exhibition. In Rebecca Windell’s ‘Eighteen Occasions’ (2016), for example, eighteen corks have been drawn on with pen. Each bares a small sketch and an inscription along the upper edge. One, showing a man with devil horns, reads ‘Bad Date.’ Another, illustrated with a newborn and a stork, states ‘New Baby.’ It is a simple gesture, but they speak to moments of connection, remembrance, and emotion. In Jeremy Hutchison’s ‘Harmattan’ series (2017), another everyday item is used as a support – he has drawn careful, measured patterns on dusty West African cars. The title gives insight to the circumstances: the ‘Harmattan’ trade winds that facilitated the navigation of slave ships, are an annual occurrence that cover the cities in a blanket of dust. It is a serious comment on the unequal structures that govern human life but in its unmediated action, it also carries a sense of the playful and the spontaneous.
These pieces are merely a handful of the innovative and compelling art that populates Jerwood Space. Throughout the galleries, the 65 artists selected and the 69 works displayed provide powerful statements about the value and meaning of drawing – how it can lead to a greater understanding of art, community and ourselves. Pushing the boundaries of the form, questioning our presumptions about medium, and consistently drawing on humour and surprise, the 2017 iteration of the ‘Jerwood Drawing Prize’ is remarkably compelling, reaffirming its reputation for excellence and innovation.