Launched in 2010, the bi-annual Jerwood Makers Open has become a valuable development opportunity for artists in the early stages of their careers. Chosen from over three hundred entries, this year five practitioners were commissioned to create a new body of work to be exhibited across the UK. The judging panel, including design historian Tanya Harrod and V&A Curator Alun Graves among others, speaks to the prize’s interest in artists that complicate the tradition of contemporary ‘applied arts’. Whilst there are no ‘useful’ works on display, each responds to traditions of making: jewellery, ceramics, carpentry and textiles.
Applied arts still carries a distinct set of associations to its counterpart design. Whilst the latter primarily exists as the material backdrop to everyday life, invisible through its use, the former is comfortable taking up residence in the gallery as an object of contemplation. The words ‘luxury’, ‘discerning taste’ and ‘artisan’ hover around these shows like talismans, and its sometimes as if the gallery has become a glorified shop-floor.
The work in this year’s Jerwood Makers Open is undoubtedly beautiful and desirable. But it also resists quick consumption. Investigations into traditional craft processes, social anxieties and climate change all appear in this meditation on making.
The opening gallery is filled with the alpine smell of linseed oil. Across the floor are carefully carved wooden bowls and jars, set stump-like on low plinths. Some are unvarnished, their surface a soft-down of sanded wood. Others are burnt, lacquered, painted black in pitch. With names like ‘Cleft Land Jar’ (2019) and ‘Riven Land Jar’ (2019), they bring together associations of landscape and body, reinforced by the wide, debilitating cracks descending their walls. Behind the jars, three canvases of crumpled calico, thread and pine evoke the sounds of wind through woodland. Forest + Found’s installation captures the sensuality of the forest at a time when their very existence is threatened. Rather than appealing to the facts, they evoke these fragile landscapes through crafting their materials.
In contrast, artist Bethan Lloyd Worthington plays with subjective association and symbolism to discuss the climate emergency. ‘Making all the greens unstable’ (2019) is a hieroglyphic wall of green ceramics, made using different materials and processes. Many of the works reference poetry or histories of environmental activism. From a green-glazed cup to a moon-painted wall piece, it becomes polyvalent, ranging from life to poison, the pastoral to the supernatural.
In the second gallery the focus shifts to craft traditions and processes. Laid out on a long white plinth is jeweller Lucie Gledhill’s ‘Chain’ (2019), a series of clustered chain-links that increase in size from necklace to a scale more at home on a suspension bridge. Known for her skills as a chain-maker, ‘Chain’ feels like a spiritual exercise by Gledhill, or a self-imposed test of skill. The un-coupled chain-links of wood, iron and silver are all meticulously crafted with a consistency that remains from the smallest to the largest.
Mark Corfield-Moore’s triptych of weaves brings together different cultural traditions, drawing on research into yarn-dying techniques in Thailand and Scotland. Using the art of ikat, where patterns are resist-dyed into the yarns before they are woven, each image contains an abstract orange form, overlaid with a patchy orange-dyed drape of yarn. The textiles are only partially woven, allowing the yarns to drape freely or be tied-up in tassels. Like Gledhill’s work, it celebrates the craft used in their production, emphasising processes and techniques as the main elements of the final piece.
Tana West’s ‘Through a Glass Darkly’ (2019) is in the reception area of Jerwood Space. Taking its inspiration from the fairground hall of mirrors, West has constructed a skeletal room-shaped structure and adorned it with large, black-glazed ceramic tiles. Fixed at different heights around the frame, the opaque surfaces reflect you back in distorted form, creating a series of literal ‘Black Mirrors’. Whilst the exhibition text describes this as ‘a manifestation of our current anxieties about the future’ (much like the television series), it is more like a minimalist sculpture, situating you in the immediate here and now. But unlike minimalism, with its preference for clean lines and industrial forms, it is the imperfections of the hand-made and uneven surfaces that come to the fore in West’s work.
This year’s Jerwood Makers Open brings together a wide range of practices, each with a different stance on the role of craft and the ‘applied arts’ today. But if there is one common thread, it is the conviction that you will only get an answer by immersing yourself in the act of making itself.