8:53 AM 2nd November 2020
New Light Prize Exhibition - Joanna Whittle
Joanna Whittle’s fascinating Sorrowing Cloth
I wait until the couple in the matching blue anoraks have left the gallery.
While what I am about to do breaks no rules or regulations, I am sufficiently aware to know that it will look bizarre to the average visitor, and suspicious to an attendant. However, I tell myself, it has to be done if I am to understand what it is that others have seen.
I step closer to the wall. Reaching into my pocket I take out my magnifying glass and begin to examine, in detail, Joanna Whittle’s fascinating Sorrowing Cloth
I begin to pick out the details of what I originally took to be a somewhat gloomy painting of a tent surrounded by towers that look like minarets. I begin to make out features that eluded my, admittedly cursory, first glance and I am drawn in to this beguiling miniature.
For a picture that is only 10cm by 15 cm (approximately the size of a postcard) there is a lot going on. What is a ‘sorrowing cloth’? Is it a part of the ritual of mourning from another culture? Why is it in the shape of a tent? What are the towers that surround it? Just where are we?
Then I notice that there are two figures seated to the left, a man and a woman. The conundrums keep on coming as I realise that the whole structure appears to be floating on water.
When I bombard Joanna Whittle with questions like this, she is exceptionally patient. She begins by explaining that oil on copper is not as unique a medium as I had thought, and that the copper surface simply has to be carefully prepared. Yes, she agrees, the size and darkness of the work suggests religious icons, and it is certainly steeped in a similar air of mystery. But her aim is to use size to draw the viewer in closer and set up an intense relationship with the image.
New Light is an organisation that exists in order to ‘celebrate and promote Northern art by supporting both well-known and emerging artists’ (introduction to the Scarborough Art Gallery catalogue). The Prize Exhibition runs once every two years and offers substantial awards, both in cash and prestige, to five of the exhibitors. In addition, public bodies and charities may borrow works of art from New Light at no cost.
Joanna Whittle was born in Zambia but lives in Sheffield. She is a multi-award winning artist having recently won the Harley Open Prize and the Contemporary British Painting Prize (both 2019) as well as the New Light Prize (2020). She has exhibited widely from Scarborough (current location of the New Light Prize Exhibition) to London and New York.
She has a particular interest in temporary structures and has painted a whole series of works depicting tents and fairgrounds, where the stalls and rides have to be set up and removed in a short space of time. Her word for it is ‘make-shift’
More than any other painting in this exhibition, I have had to trek from indifference to fan. Whittle demands that you work at her paintings, but the rewards of her kind of modern Romanticism are considerable.