Review by Maggie Gray
Jerwood Visual Arts has championed painting for years, first through their Jerwood Painting Prize, then in a series of Contemporary Painters group shows, and now, in a new venture, with three annual fellowships. Cara Nahaul, Clare Mitten and Corinna Till are the inaugural recipients, each receiving six months under the direction of the artists Paul Bonaventura, Steven Farthing RA and Chantal Joffe, prize money of £10,000, and the current exhibition at Jerwood Space; the sort of time, money, and critical and public attention that can prove crucial to making your way in art. It is commendable of Jerwood, the mentors and the artists themselves that each of their paths remains resolutely independent - even if this does make for a rather eclectic three-way exhibition.
Each artist takes over a different room to offer a peek at their recent progress. There is no theme beyond that broadest of umbrella-headings, ‘painting,’ and the interpretation of that is refreshingly broad. Underlying all their work is the sense that painting is not a fragile discipline that needs to be kept intact and afloat in the choppy waters of contemporary art. Instead, it is actively embroiled in the creative melee that characterises practice today. There are as many works of collage, sculpture and photography as there are ‘pure’ paintings on show; and even where brush is applied to canvas the artists are demonstrably responding to other media. Each artist rethinks the discipline in inventive and challenging ways.
It’s a bold statement, as a painting fellow, to mount a display that features no traditional painting. Instead, Clare Mitten’s room is given over to a colourful collection of sculptures and collages. Her work is a process that advances in stages, and across media. Taking mechanical objects such as cameras, headphones and (somewhat incongruously) a tank, she creates deft makeshift models in flimsy bric-a-brac materials: cardboard, toothpicks, bits of string. From the models, she makes gouaches; from the gouaches, large-scale collages pasted dramatically onto black walls. At each stage the subject is transformed, responding to the clues of the previous image, and the possibilities of the new medium. Looking at the dynamic assemblages is like listening in at the end of Chinese whispers: their resemblance to the originals is undeniable, but how the artist arrived at the end point remains obscure, and we sense that were Mitten to start again, she could easily finish somewhere else. Surprisingly, we do not see the gouaches, but the bright, planar qualities of the collage, and the evident traces of the artist’s hand (smudges of glue, rips and folds lend character to her work) hint at this missing link, which is perpetually relevant to her visual output.
Like Mitten, Corinna Till displays her paintings indirectly. Till focuses on the garden gate; the innocuous threshold between public and private space. She paints gestural representations on cardboard before staging photographs of the works back at their source, propped up between gateposts by a hidden helper, fingertips gripping the edges of the card. It is the photographs that we see; large-scale and leant against the wall like a makeshift fence. Although it’s tempting to try to force the illusion, and marry the painted gate with the real setting, the visible brushstrokes and heightened colours frustrate: instead, accidental semblances between daubs of artist’s paint and flashes of white pebbles, specks on cardboard and cracks in bricks, come to the fore. One of Till’s sketchbooks sits on a desk nearby, side-lit by a table-lamp. She has cut slats into several pages, which cast shadows as you turn them, like hinged gates swinging in the sun. Till poetically depicts our everyday physical boundaries as she breaks down artistic ones. By bringing together the original subjects, their painted representations, their sketchbook equivalents and their photographs, we are forced to consider the whole package. We notice, by turns, the painterliness of the place, the physicality of the image, and the transformative effect of the camera.
Cara Nahaul’s display of wall-mounted, oil-on-canvas paintings looks positively traditional by contrast. But her work also reconsiders the role of painting. She depicts ambiguous groups of figures who face the viewer, flattened between the picture plane and empty backgrounds. They are inspired by old photographs of her father’s homeland, India; a country Nahaul herself has not known as a home. Her sources range from anonymous documentary images to personal pictures of Benazir Bhutto, the first female Prime Minister of Pakistan assassinated in 2007. These disparate people are brought together visually under Nahaul’s brush. She paints each picture in the same haunting style, using broad, thin washes of paint to mark out the figures, with patterned prints and nondescript backgrounds picked out in a bold orange that disregards her black and white sources. Faces are pared down, and arresting, with closed lips and unsettlingly shadowy eyes - deep pools with little expression up close, and a watchful personal intensity from farther away.
What are we to make of these figures, painted with ghostly clarity, but whose identities slip under our gaze’ Nahaul’s paintings cannot quite classify as portraiture because she moves stylistically from variety to uniformity; but neither are they abstract or simple types. Her work also questions the role of the artist, and how well they are expected to know their subjects in ‘real life.’ Nahaul’s sources are secondary and although her titles evoke the history of a country (one large gathered group is punningly named ‘Pre-union’) they do not reflect her own experience of it.
In their own ways, each of the inaugural painting fellows ask pertinent questions about their medium, throwing it together with other disciplines to see how they can be made to work in conversation with each other. This makes for three visually dramatic and confident displays, which set an innovative precedent for the scheme. It will be interesting to see what avenues these artists, and the next Jerwood fellows, explore in years to come.