Featuring three artists working in the time-honoured medium of black and white photography, the striking selection of works in the ‘Jerwood/Photoworks Awards 2015’ exhibition use photography in ways that are anything but predictable. New work by Matthew Finn, Joanna Piotrowska, and Tereza Zelenkova is curated across three rooms in Jerwood Space, presenting diverse practices that are nevertheless remarkably consistent in both aesthetic approach and overall quality.
The Jerwood/Photoworks Awards are a new initiative designed to support and mentor UK-based photographers who are within ten years of establishing their practice. Finn, Piotrowska, and Zelenkova were selected from hundreds of applicants to be personally mentored by established artists and other art-world figures including Alec Soth, Broomberg & Chanarin, Gillian Wearing and Michael Mack. The work presented here is the outcome of this combination of funding, time and creative support awarded to the photographers - and it shows.
Finn’s untitled photographs represent the latest chapter of a long-standing personal project, ‘Mother’ (1987 - present). For decades, Finn has worked with his mother, Jean, to create a series of collaborative portraits that examine the intense and fluctuating dynamic between a single mother and her only son. This current phase of the project has been influenced by a change in Jean’s mental health and her move from the family home to an assisted living facility. Finn’s portraits are no longer as collaborative as they once were, as Jean’s changing psyche inevitably alters both their creative and personal relationship. The mood of the mostly small-scale photographs is contemplative and elegiac as Jean is framed - cradled, even - within the confines of the domestic space. Passing moments of hope, struggle and frailty are conveyed through Finn’s unceasingly compassionate filial gaze.
Opposite hangs Zelenkova’s work, which explores the physical and psychic landscapes of her native Czech Republic. Taking folk tradition, histories and myths as her inspiration, this is a darkly allusive rendering of spaces and associated ideas that transcends straightforward documentation. The narrative most familiar to a British audience, perhaps, is that of serial killer Countess Elizabeth Báthory. In ‘Elizabeth Bathory’s Bedroom, Čachtice Castle’ she is referenced via a starkly symbolic image of a black hole in a stone wall; the Countess was immured for her crimes. Materials and textures are exploited to their fullest in Zelenkova’s photographs: the tiles of a traditional stove, the rough stone of a menhir, or the bark of an ancient tree that is slowly subsuming a crucifix. This last work, ‘Jesus’, is contained within a folkloric wooden frame carved with oak leaves. Throughout, Zelenkova utilises each photograph’s presentation as part of the process of making meaning. Black macramé hangs from the bottom of ‘The Unseen’, an enigmatic image of women with cloth-covered heads, as meaning is drawn out from the plane of the photograph and into a quasi-sculptural space.
At the furthest reach of the gallery are Polish photographer Piotrowska’s arresting untitled images of young women in various attitudes of self defence. There are no external assailants pictured, however: only the adolescents themselves contorting themselves to evade unseen adversaries in a variety of apparently mundane domestic spaces. Inspired by the writings of Carol Gilligan, Piotrowska’s rather uncanny images serve to externalise an internal struggle (linked here to the feminine position), as experienced at a particularly vulnerable age within patriarchal society. Photographs displayed on human-sized supports invite a kind of embodied identification that draws on the language of minimalism, while smaller images such as ‘Untitled (No. 34)’, depicting a pair of complexly intertwined hands and forearms, draw the viewer into a more intimate relationship of looking. In keeping with the photographer’s previous work, there is a prevailing sense of anxiety and the occasionally suffocating human need to control.
Seen as a whole, the exhibition is remarkably visually and conceptually coherent. Only one colour photograph is featured in an otherwise entirely monochromatic show: a small, dreamy untitled image of Finn’s mother’s net curtains; even this is highly unsaturated. Strikingly, there is not a single male figure depicted, though the presence (or absence) of men in personal narratives and wider histories is manifest implicitly throughout. However, while there are undoubtedly strong similarities between the three projects - not least the prevailing feeling of contemplation and interiority - their distinct natures preclude any flattening out of content. The quality of the work is a testament not only to the individual skill of the artists featured, but to the value and urgency of initiatives like the Jerwood/Photoworks Awards in the UK’s current cultural and economic climate.