Jerwood Drawing Prize
Review by James Cahill
There is a fashion for serious art prizes to be the preserve of students and graduates of art schools. Francis Bacon, for one, could never have been anointed a New Contemporary. But if he had drawn – a practice he famously disavowed – the Jerwood Drawing Prize might have lain within his grasp.
Now in its eighteenth year, the award is refreshingly democratic: the 77 shortlisted works arrayed throughout Jerwood Space’s airy enfilade of converted bike sheds have been selected from an open submission. The inclusive spirit is reflected in the cluttered installation, a heterogeneous trove of drawings on various surfaces in every conceivable medium, as well as prints, animations, video recordings, a projection and several sculptures which seemingly ask (not always convincingly) to be reconsidered as ‘three-dimensional drawings’.
The selectors – British Museum curator Stephen Coppel, Drawing Room curator Kate MacFarlane, and artist and tutor Lisa Milroy – have thankfully made no overt attempts to jostle the shortlisted entries into sequences or subsets. And yet certain trends begin to emerge from the cacophony. Several works unravel the processes of drawing itself. Tanya Wood’s ‘Pillow’ (2012), a pencil study of an outspread pillowcase, seems both a mundane rendering of creases and a tentative metaphor for the inscribed or imprinted surface – E.E. Cummings’s “pillow, dear, where our heads lived and were.” Or a Sudarium, albeit with Christ’s face washed off.
The idea of drawing as an insubstantial trace is played out in Margarita Gluzberg’s ‘The Consumystic (Our lady of)’ (2011), which at first glance resembles a spot-lit photorealist drawing: the head of a pearl-necklaced woman hovers like a reflection across a shop window’s slatted security grill. The image is in fact a projection onto a sheet of paper smothered in graphite; and Gluzberg has double and triple exposed a length of 25mm film to create the layered images. The resulting hologram of a fashion-world ‘Madonna’ slowly waxes and wanes depending on the angle it is viewed from – an elegant literalisation of the proverbial ‘fleeting image’.
Gluzberg’s work and others probe and push the boundaries of what drawing constitutes. Appropriately, a video by Stefan Gant is titled ‘Crossing the Line’ and transmutes drawing into performance. We see Gant’s hand scoring a page with pencil lines in automatist response to a background recording of a pastor declaiming on Jesus, marriage, truth and love. Amikam Toren’s ‘The end’ (2012) is a framed assemblage or ‘sculptural drawing’ – a sketchpad’s cardboard back cover has been hoisted on the petard of its own buckled and extruded wire binding, which snakes upwards like a meandering line ‘taken for a walk’. Toren recycles the physical apparatus of drawing to approximate its basic forms, whether tonal or linear: the medium becomes the message.
But while Toren affects a witty kind of masquerade, conflating the immateriality of ‘image’ with the physicality of a ‘picture’, other three-dimensional works seem barely relevant. Frances Richardson’s ‘Object place for diversion’ (2012), an awry matrix of MDF struts suggesting a tangle of window frames, was apparently “made by an act of drawing”; but if this is the justification for including it, then countless other sculptures would presumably have qualified. Kasper Pincis’s graphite-coated ‘tent pegs’ carved from balsa wood are another inexplicable inclusion, alluring and slyly deceptive objects as they are.
A more successful straddling of media occurs in Ishai Rimmer’s ‘In the kitchen’ (2012), a self portrait executed in gestural, broadbrush paint, which depicts the artist sitting in his underwear in his kitchen. Its presence here amounts to a welcome rebuttal of curators’ attempts, in recent years, to over-emphasise the difference between drawing and painting, the latter representing something of a poisoned chalice.
High Church Conceptualism is thin on the ground, although Jane Bustin’s ‘Unseen’ (2012) – a square of chalk-white pastel on an off-white ground, redolent of a pared-down Albers canvas – injects a timely note of nuanced understatement. The hair’s breadth between the two shades aptly symbolises Duchamp’s theory of fractional difference or ‘inframince’. A more exuberant mode of abstraction is manifested by Julia Vogl’s ‘Destination - Red, Turquoise and Orange’ (2011) – a patchwork of interwoven coloured bands in marker pen, based on aerial views of cities, with vague nods to Jasper Johns and Sarah Morris.
Of the large number of figurative works, the most arresting are those which unselfconsciously paraphrase other genres, whether cartoons or diagrams. Richard Galloway’s linocut ‘Dolor’ (2011) conjures a febrile urban scene poised somewhere between the deranged cartoons of Michael Heath and the biomorphic drawings of Charles Seliger. Elizabeth Butterworth’s fastidiously annotated studies of birds amusingly appropriate the aesthetic of schoolbook illustrations.
Inevitably, the exhibition’s fitful fluctuations in medium and subject are accompanied by occasional stalls in quality. If the dense hang vaguely echoes that of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, there are similar moments – as with any committee-selected show – of wondering how a work possibly made the grade.
At the same time, the strength of this exhibition is its refusal to attempt to define and delimit drawing. Certain entries fall far outside any basic notion of drawing, but are somehow accommodated by the generous, catholic, motley premise of the occasion. If anything, the core category of ‘works on paper’ might have been broadened even further – there is a scarcity (or total absence) of collages, realist portraits, etchings, or drawings made by computers or machines (even if Linda Antalova’s ‘Unfolding’, ostensibly a large reproduction of a mathematical diagram, produces a rare frisson – the seemingly mechanical design revealing itself as a hand-drawn impersonation).
The prize showcases work of perhaps unpolished and haphazard quality, but surely this is only to be expected? Moreover, it is arguably an inherent aspect of drawing as a medium. Bacon’s reticence about drawing was undoubtedly related to a sense of it being secondary, preparatory practice. The Jerwood Drawing Prize vitally foregrounds the directness and dynamism of a medium so often regarded as subsidiary, highlighting the myriad ways in which it might be treated as an end in itself.