The Jerwood/Photoworks Awards is a significant opportunity for an early career artist to develop their work over the course of a year with the benefit of financial support and a program of mentoring. The 2020 winners are Silvia Rosi and Theo Simpson and their commissioned work is currently on view at Jerwood Arts.
The award boasts its effort to encourage artists who engage with photography in an experimental way. It is no surprise then, to be greeted at the exhibition entrance by reflective metal panels on a geometric steel frame. The work of Theo Simpson juts out into the space of the gallery, articulating its own wall. Simpson translates landscape photography through production, with dramatic skies bisected by minimalism and abstraction, jarring collages of photos, including archival images of miners’ strikes, rendered flat through repetition.
The materiality of the work is significant, the surfaces reminiscent of car bodywork, glittering, malleable, infinitely tranquil in their precision. Wedged between the landscape and production is a juxtaposition of topology and technology. What remains constant under conditions of continuous deformation is not only a question asked of materials, landscape and environment, but also of politics and culture.
The Marx quotation in the exhibition text inflects the work with historical materialism that would otherwise be overshadowed by the aesthetic. Simultaneously flippant and over dramatic, ‘Shear’ appears coffin like, an angular metal form in the centre of the gallery with a dusting of coal on either side. An object that I can only describe as retro-futuristic-car-porn for the working-class northerner, it understates the legacy of cultural and economic violence that resulted from the devastation of mining.
Perhaps then, materiality is all there is, or perhaps Simpson’s obvious skill as a fabricator has positioned his work too close to the surface, preventing any plumbing for depth. Overall, ‘Dark Interlude’ feels beautiful but uneven, lacking a measured conceptual framework that could better situate the work historically.
By contrast, Silvia Rosi’s ‘Encounter’ draws on West African portrait photography and family narrative. The exhibition is influenced by her parents’ migration from Togo to Italy, and is composed of large studio self-portraits of Rosi as both her mother and father above framed texts offering up the promise of a story. These large works are combined with multi screen video works of Rosi, her mother, and her grandmother detailing head carrying techniques.
Rather than satisfying the desire for narrative, the text panels that support each portrait, take two or three sentences about upheaval, citizenship, work, and relationships and repeat them over and over. This repetition implies the universality of these particulars and although the narrative is specific to Rosi’s family album, there is also a shared migrant experience that repeats indefinitely.
Despite being the culmination of a year’s work, ‘Encounter’ has the distinct feeling of a beginning. Rosi reaches for aspects of culture that have been obfuscated by geography, solidifying the narrative of her parents’ experience through action, repetition and mimicry, while simultaneously opening that narrative outwards. It is work that contains the promise of more work within it.