2019 turned out to be a bumper crop for Sheffield’s art scene. As the year drew to a close, three artists based in the city managed to secure major national prizes: Joanna Whittle with the Contemporary British Painting Prize; Penny McCarthy with the Evelyn Williams Drawing Award; and Conor Rogers with the Robert Walters Group UK Young Artist of the Year. These significant achievements put their work in the spotlight and will help them develop their practice still further. As Whittle puts it, with some understatement: ‘When you’re struggling along, it’s quite nice to know that people think your work’s alright’.
This recognition comes at a moment when Sheffield’s creative landscape is also going from strength to strength. Renovations to Site Gallery and S1 have allowed for ambitious, expansive programming, while spaces such as Bloc and Sidney&Matilda have continued to act as a vanguard for emerging voices.
For Conor Rogers, a chance conversation on the streets of Sheffield is as important as any that might take place within the walls of a gallery. His paintings draw inspiration from everyday encounters, underscored by found objects or unusual materials – a sheet of Rizla cigarette paper, a matchbox – which shift how the viewer responds to an image. But the relationship between these different elements has to be arrived at subconsciously. ‘I don’t like it to be a structured practice,’ he reflects, ‘because it’s all about candidness, and that means it’s got to be an honest encounter’.
While the inspiration for his works might be spontaneous, assembling them is anything but. Rogers might get in touch with suppliers to ascertain the exact properties of a material, how much water a sheet of plastic can withstand before the paint gives way, or the chemical formula of a pigment. For ‘Mr Freeze’ (2019), he collected dozens of ice pop wrappers and superglued and sellotaped them together so meticulously that you can’t see the joins. His portraits appeal to nostalgia, but they also push the viewer to encounter painting as something beyond a flat plane, to read the faces of his subjects alongside the textures and cultural references that tell a story about who they really are.
As a teenager, Rogers’ connection to art was more about spray-painting sneakers than conceptual explorations of identity. It wasn’t until art school that he started questioning the relationship between form and image, working out how he could manipulate materials to tell stories more truthfully. One lunchtime as a student, he was watching his peers coat their canvases with primer when he felt a sudden urge to do the same to his packet of crisps. This domination of material was a pivotal moment, revealing how he could exploit the tension between picture and object, which set him off seeking canvases from unlikely sources and coaxing difficult textures into shape.
In ‘Home’ (2020) a tattered and burnt union jack underpins a portrait of a gaunt, steely-eyed man Rogers once chatted with in an underpass. The man had fought in the Falklands War but became homeless after returning to the UK, which led Rogers to contemplate the layers of deceit bound up in ideas of belonging. Rogers reflects on the significance of the man’s experience to national identity: ‘The symbolism, the power of nation, and the way we send people to war and then forget them. There’s a lot of pain in that flag’.
Another series of paintings are framed by betting slips, recalling childhood days out with his grandfather, but also paying homage to ‘the rituals, the pilgrimages men from my estate would make. There were places of joy and anger, and comfort, and resentment, and all these levels of bravado you had to fulfil’. Subtitled ‘Fuck Sake’, ‘Skint’ and ‘Sheila’ (2019), these images reveal some of the tenderness, frustration and in-jokes of people he has known and observed closely.
While vibrant human connections are the catalyst to Rogers’ paintings, there is an unsettling stasis to Whittle’s landscapes. Many feature marquee tents suspended in ghostly stillness, sometimes against a backdrop of dense foliage, sullen skies, or circled by murky rainwater. Having worked at a number of festivals over the years, Whittle finds herself drawn to particular moments in their timeline, the quiet dawns when nobody is around, when there is no trace of the buzz and laughter usually associated with such events. It was these emptied-out elephantine structures, sometimes lit by a single wan lightbulb, which lingered in her mind, and led her to contemplate their fragility and eventual decay. It is a thread in her work that evokes Romantic painters, whose fascination with ‘old castles and crumbling follies’ signaled the transience of civilisation, as nature gradually encroaches upon and erases it.
This conflict between nature and the manmade is just as present in Whittle’s paintings, which capture the fairground tent as it starts to sag with wear, its carnival splendour just a flash in the pan before it is slowly enveloped by mud. Fairgrounds and festivals are, by definition, fleeting: and in Whittle’s hands it is as though they are foretelling their own demise. These works are intended to make the viewer feel they have stumbled onto the scene, that they are complicit somehow. The tent motif is ‘about being alone, but because of the type of structures they are, humanity is always suggested and inferred, as though somebody has just been there, or is coming back. There’s always an implication of furtive activity, but it’s unseen’.
It is important to Whittle that the paintings are small. Previously, she says, she envisioned the compositions as large, life-like, hyper-real in both detail and proportion. But those did not lend themselves to the intimate connection she set out to create, or pull you over squinting curiously from the other side of a gallery.
Both Rogers and Whittle were selected for Site Gallery’s Platform 20, a two-year funded residency in partnership with the Freelands Artist Programme. The programme has given them a testing ground for new ideas as well as mentoring and guidance. Whittle says they only just started in September, but it’s already been a really supportive experience: ‘It helps you focus your practice, and understand what’s important about what you do and make’. Rogers agrees: ‘It allows you freedom to chase more daring ideas. Freedom to think a bit more, confidence that someone is looking out for you, appreciation that someone actually selected you’.
Likewise, being chosen for the Evelyn Williams Prize has enabled Penny McCarthy to delve into all kinds of new territory for her solo show at Hastings Contemporary. For McCarthy, drawing represents ‘a sort of rescue mission, a way of re-materialising lost texts and images onto paper’. She is attracted to the idea of the counterfeit, the facsimile and the double, and much of her practice involves reproducing archival texts and images with painstaking fidelity. However, it can require a lot of ingenuity to figure out the exact dimensions and colour-ways of an image when she may only have a scratchy jpeg to go off. She cites Was ist Aura (2019), a handwritten Walter Benjamin text she recreated last year. ‘We think of it as a very cool analytical Marxist text’, she says, ‘but as soon as you see the handwriting, and the stains on the paper, suddenly you see the human being’.
In order to reproduce a work of this nature, McCarthy pushes herself to take on the gestures of the original creator, ‘to inhabit the body of a shortsighted forty-three-year-old man, using a language I don’t speak, sitting in a café during the Second World War, writing on any paper he can get his hands on’. Sometimes, she concedes, the process can be exhausting:
This notion of authenticity pervades much of McCarthy’s practice. In one exhibition, her copies of Victorian drawings were displayed in the same frames as the original works, and even a Christie’s expert struggled to tell the difference. ‘It’s so easy to think of drawing as something that looks back to a different time, that is completely material and embodied’, she observes, ‘but lot of the recreations are in fact about pulling somebody out of the past’. She has experimented still further by feeding her compositions into a Google image search, and challenging the software to hunt down the original. At times, it seemed almost confused by the query, wantonly retrieving pictures of the moon landing or a patterned skirt instead.
Lately, McCarthy has been contemplating how ideas about twinning and fakery can be incorporated into her show at Hastings. She is intrigued by the phenomenon of the Fata Morgana, a mirage in which a city’s floating outline is suddenly reflected in a vivid pink sky. Bizarrely, though many remember witnessing the phenomenon in Hastings in 2015, she has yet to find a person who has photographed it, which has damaged her hopes of cataloguing their images for her show. ‘I don’t know what that means for me’, she laughs, ‘am I going to have to fake the whole thing?’
The prospect of the solo show, of course, is a game-changer – the ideal moment to find a wider audience and experiment with new possibilities which might have seemed out of reach. Just as McCarthy’s prize has led her to Hastings, Whittle is preparing her exhibition for the Harley Gallery in May, creating new miniatures and ceramics inspired by the historical Portland collection.
All three artists agree that while creativity in Sheffield is thriving, there need to be more sustained funding models to support it. Programmes such as Making Ways and Freelands have been instrumental in providing countless artists with the means to create new commissions, and for tirelessly promoting collaboration and peer networks, but these reserves are nevertheless limited – Making Ways no longer has a budget and relies on the resourcefulness of its members to make projects happen.
Without funding and prizes, trying to stay afloat as an artist would be a real struggle. Rogers, for example, has lots of plans for the next five years, installations and collaborations and potentially a solo show overseas, but they’re the kind of plans that couldn’t be sustained by someone working a thirty-hour-a-week job alongside their practice. McCarthy, in her role as reader at Sheffield Hallam, also worries about the decline in opportunities for younger artists: ‘My students are really brilliant for making stuff happen in cafés, on the streets, among their friends’, she muses, ‘but you’d need an awful lot of energy to keep doing that forever’.
While the future may be uncertain, with such a strong spirit of collaboration and artistic engagement in Sheffield, it’s a perfect environment for these three artists to carry on shaping their practice. As Rogers puts it, ‘In Sheffield we’re all in it together, it’s a very safe, calm space to exhibit your work… It isn’t about showboating, or trying to look good – you can relax and let the work do the talking’.
Orla Foster is a writer based in Sheffield.