Jerwood Visual Arts, 171 Union Street, Bankside, London, SE1 0LN.

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Jerwood Makers Open 2013
JVA at Jerwood Space, London
10 July - 25 August 2013
Review by Maggie Gray

Jerwood Visual Arts mounts a series of medium-specific art prizes and commissions each year - for painting, drawing, film and video, and the applied arts - all of which tend, rather contrarily, to muddle the very same categories they celebrate. It’s not unusual to see animations in the drawing prize, photography as painting, and sculpture across the board, emphasising just how much of a melting pot art has become, or perhaps always has been.

The latest Jerwood Makers Open, a panel-selected commission enabling five contemporary artists working within the applied arts to develop new work, is no exception. ‘Applied’ art may historically have occupied a rather lowly place in the canon (practically-minded stuff, supposedly in contrast to the more ‘cerebral’ fine arts), but methods such as tapestry-weaving, paper-cutting, and ceramics have always been a rich source of inspiration for artists looking to challenge the status quo, particularly in the face of increasingly conceptual modern practices. Many of the current exhibitors use their specialism as a subject as much as a method, to be practically mastered, but also deconstructed, re-combined with other art-forms, and critically explored.

Nahoko Kojima’s cut paper work seems particularly timely in light of ‘Paper’ at the Saatchi Gallery (until 29 September) and the Manchester Art Gallery’s recent exhibition devoted to the material, ‘The First Cut’ (which tours to Southampton SeaCity Museum, 11 October 2013 - 12 January 2014). Kojima, who works within the Japanese kiri-e tradition, pushes the material to its limits. Her paper polar bear is an astonishingly detailed, whimsical piece of work cut, pelt-like, from a single sheet of paper and precariously arranged to hang like a ghost in the gallery, nose and forepaw raised in suspended animation. The fragile apparition eloquently sums up the fate of its endangered subject, the inhabitant of an environment that threatens to break up at any moment. Of all the exhibits, this probably comes closest to a pure demonstration of skill, a tour-de-force celebrating one particular art-form’s innate expressive qualities.

Adam Buick takes a slightly more sidelong look at the ceramic medium, finding a poetic parallel between hand-thrown porcelain bells and the gonging sound of sea caves. His installation seeks to recreate the latter: a large bell hangs low in the darkened room, while a video of another of his creations in situ on the Pembrokeshire coast opens up the vista to a soundtrack of waves, the cave’s echoing tones, and man’s manipulated reverberations in the form of an occasional struck note. The smoothness of the manmade object (and its sound) contrasts with the cragginess of the cave, but the parallels between natural and manmade sculpture and sound ring true. The artist seems to communicate not just a skill, but a whole feeling, process, and place. Again, his approach plays into a wider contemporary re-think of the medium: London’s Breese Little Gallery has recently mounted ‘The Palace of Green Porcelain’ that looks at ceramics as vessels for their own music.

Buick combines different media in the presentation of his work; Roanna Wells actively incorporates other art-forms and technologies in the creation of hers. Taking specially-commissioned aerial photographs of public gatherings (in this case, the Kumbh Mela celebrations in India) as her starting point, she translates their collective formations into painstakingly stitched abstracts. Aerial photographs are taken, by necessity, at speed and on the move, but Wells’ method slows everything down. Each stitch represents a single person - distinct yet anonymous ‘communicating something of the contradictory nature of large crowds, which are experienced by many yet behave, remarkably predictably, as one. Fixed and examined by the artist’s needle, the image takes on a forensic character; human groups beginning to look like microbes spreading over a Petri dish. There’s a conflict in the artist’s work, between individual threads of human experience, and populations collectively and remotely surveyed that echoes the way we view and understand the world today.

Maisie Broadhead also uses applied art traditions as a way of re-staging and framing contemporary experience, in this case coordinating an elaborate remake of Paolo Veronese’s series ‘Allegory of Love’ (1575), set in modern Britain. The resulting photographs are displayed alongside the exquisitely made props that feature within them - jewellery, a glass cushion, delicately embroidered upholstery - incorporating witty updates of historical symbols and insignia using motifs including Barbie dolls and cars. This tactic, reminiscent of Grayson Perry’s tapestries and ceramics, incidentally demonstrates the degree to which applied and fine arts have always existed hand in hand as luxury items. But, like Perry, the artist’s real question seems to be how such privileged traditions and narratives might apply across history and class. Is depicting modern, relatable subjects enough to democratise these arts, which remain as specialised and expensive as ever’

Linda Brothwell’s work also asks questions about the relevance and revival of contemporary applied arts. She created a series of tools to make interventions at the Portland Works in Sheffield, which she has subsequently archived in a museum-like display. Like ancient tools of uncertain purpose, these items have an appealing mystique, but in this case it comes not from age and the obscurity of time, but from the accelerating present. Increasingly we look at tools with curiosity rather than necessity, forgetting them even as we appropriate their functions to describe virtual tasks: cutting, snipping, pasting and modelling. Brothwell seems to suggest that applied art has lost its applied relevance, surviving as a relic for enthusiasts, a nostalgic revivalist trend.

An exhibition such as this is always going to settle into its independent parts - it would be worrying, and against the point, to see too clear a theme running through the work of the different artists. The exhibition demonstrates a variety of ways in which contemporary artists have responded to the traditions and expectations of applied arts in a multifaceted present. Its celebration of craftsmanship echoes a wider trend, not just in contemporary art but in culture more generally: the works offer, perhaps, a way of reconnecting with traditions that are increasingly brushed aside in today’s fast-paced, corner-cutting society.

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