Recently I sat down with this year’s Jerwood Painting Fellowship mentors to discuss, among other things, how they selected the artists, their thoughts on contemporary painting and how they approached their role as mentors.
How did you go about selecting and agreeing upon the three Jerwood Painting Fellows? I’m assuming there were a lot of entries, did it take you long to agree upon the final three?
Paul Bonaventura: There were a lot of entries and in the first instance we were mostly looking at images on a screen.
Chantal Joffe: On a computer.
Stephen Farthing: Everyone sent in digital images.
PB: Yes, everyone sent in digital images and there were hundreds.
SF: Many more than we expected.
CJ: And a higher standard than we thought there might be. There was around three hundred wasn’t there?
PB: I’m pretty certain it was up around three hundred. Chantal is right, the overall quality was very high but I don’t remember it being that painful arriving at the short list.
SF: No, I think it happened quite organically, we didn’t have any arguments.
CJ: It was pretty obvious who was really good and I think that’s always true in short-listing – what’s good shines out.
PB: In the vast majority of cases we agreed almost instantly.
SF: One thing I remember is that we were all mindful of the fact that work often looks better in photographs than it does in real life, so we were prepared for disappointments.
PB: How many did we eventually interview?
CJ: No, more… eight?
PB: I think it was eight.
So how did you arrive at a consensus?
PB: By discussion.
CJ: Like the X Factor!
PB: In fact everyone we saw could have been selected. But, as well as thinking about who should have it, I was also thinking about what kind of an exhibition the three individuals would make together.
CJ: I wasn’t.
SF: No, I wasn’t either, I was just thinking of them as individuals. It wouldn’t have mattered if they didn’t fit together because that wasn’t the project. I think we got a good mix in the end.
PB: We did.
CJ: It was also important to find out what they were like as people, not just what their work was like. I wanted to know how serious and how committed they were.
SF: It would have been pointless choosing people that we didn’t feel we could add something to. We turned down people who were very good but it was because we didn’t think we could do much for them, we didn’t feel we could enter into a dialogue. The question we all asked ourselves was: ‘do we want to spend more time with them?’ The fellowship was not a reward, it was an opportunity. We were thinking of it more in terms of being able to help them.
You described the fellowship as a ‘professional development scheme’, offering ‘intellectual support, tangible assistance and artistic stimulus to emerging painters’. Can you give some insight into how these objectives were met?
SF: We went to art exhibitions together, we decided on books and magazines that they should read and created an environment where we could share and swap ideas. We also created a kind of social context where we’d go off on little trips and sit in taxis together.
CJ: Taxis were good; a lot of chat took place in taxis.
PB: In previous incarnations of Jerwood painting shows individuals have either shown one, sometimes two or, if they’re lucky, three pieces of work, but here they’re given a solo exhibition. These three individuals were actually given the opportunity to generate a brand new body of work that led towards an exhibition. That’s where the artistic stimulus came in, not just hanging out with us three and the various people that we introduced them to but also that they got an opportunity to go back to their studios and develop a body of work over a number of months.
SF: I don’t think there’s any bigger gift you can give a young artist. To give these artists an exhibition in a serious venue at this point of their careers is just amazing. This is their first exhibition of this type and it’s really this first exhibition that determines for most people whether they carry on and have a serious career or if it’s a back burner career where you’re earning your money as a barman and, in the end, finding it too difficult to support a studio and so it becomes a tabletop activity that probably fades away into nothing.
Looking at the work currently on show in the Jerwood Space it could be argued that there needs to be a clearer distinction between ‘painters’ and ‘artists who use paint’. Considering the expanded nature of contemporary art practice, do you think the term ‘painter’ still has currency?
CJ: Yes I do. I think it’s really important. Painting is a thing unto itself as I think photography is and installation and sculpture are. It has its own edges, like a painting itself has edges.
SF: When you said photography I was thinking … what’s good about photography is people like Thomas Joshua Cooper who are real photographers, they adore the chemicals, they’ll do anything to get the camera in the right place, and that’s what good painters do.
PB: As you were talking I was thinking about Corinna’s work. Corinna uses photography but it’s simply a delivery system, and that’s all it is, yet she is a painter through and through.
CJ: Yes, she talks in terms of painting.
SF: She has no interest in photography.
CJ: Clare is a fantastic artist but I’m not sure I would call her a painter…
PB: Clare is obviously on the boundary but we felt that for the purposes of this project that she was a painter. Someone else might interpret her work completely differently but we instinctively felt that she sat easily within this company and that was enough for us to consider her a painter. The good thing about the Jerwood in this instance was that they gave us free reign. To a certain extent people were self selecting in that when they sent in their submissions they obviously thought about themselves as painters – after all they were applying for the Jerwood Painting Fellowship. We interpreted the term as we wished.
SF: The idea of being a painter has obviously become more complex because a lot of art schools don’t teach painting any more; they don’t teach drawing, they don’t teach photography. Most painting is self taught now, but when someone like Ewan Uglow was teaching at the Slade, painting was taught by a master and a methodology was handed down. There’s not much being handed down now other than the sense of being an artist; it’s almost as simple as passing on a lifestyle and an accepted set of manners. There isn’t a bag of tricks or a set of skills that go along with studying in art schools today.
PB: Corinna and Clare do think of themselves as painters and that’s very clear when you’re in conversation with them. And the fact that they applied for this fellowship – they knew who the mentors were going to be, two outstanding painters and a curator who has frequently worked with painters. For me this term ‘self selection’ comes through again and again, not only in the selection process but also in the mentoring process.
When I spoke to the artists it was Corinna and Clare who both very much wanted themselves to be seen in the context of painting, whereas Cara, who is most obviously working with paint, isn’t as happy to be defined in this way.
PB: Yes. I can imagine in ten year’s time Cara’s work looking completely different.
SF: I can imagine her being involved in film making.
What have you found most rewarding about being mentors?
SF: Seeing them spend the money was good. Two of them got new studios, Clare extended hers and they all spent more time in them. It’s sad but true that work is often only as good as the time and money invested in it. You don’t need to have lots of money to make good paintings but you do need to have good time and it was really good seeing the Jerwood’s money spent so wisely. With a lot of these art prizes my guess is that people pay off their overdrafts, have a holiday and that’s it.
CJ: I was in the wilds of north London near Crouch End and I was going down all these streets with endless gates and each higgledy-piggledy front garden was different, which was just like Corinna’s work. That was a great moment for me.
PB: All great artists show us the world in a new light. For me it’s great to be given an opportunity to help people who want to help themselves. Cara, Clare and Corinna could have put together a really good exhibition without our involvement but, because of the Jerwood, three emerging artists were given a fantastic opportunity, not only financially but also intellectually and, as it transpired, socially. They really grabbed that opportunity and, to a certain extent, we as mentors got carried along in the wake. That was a wonderful thing to experience. You get that with enthusiasts in any subject but it’s lovely to be around people who just want more; they were eager, they had a real appetite and there was never a sense of any tiring.