Text by Abigail Christenson
Here’s a question: is drawing a more egalitarian medium than others? Manchester is a city of draughtsmen and women, and Manchester has always been a place where hierarchies are levelled – or at least where attempts are made to level them. On the other hand, perhaps the city’s interest in drawing has as much to do with the weather, as it has to do with the political and economic climate. In this hazy, grey city the distant outline and silhouette of things is what is most often recognised; call it our first language of depicting. I know this from experience. Here we get to know the outline of things, felt first, and then seen.
Whatever the specific causes, from the evidence of The Manchester Contemporary (27 – 30 October 2011) drawing is very much alive here. Manchester artist Lee Machell (at Untitled Gallery in Manchester) is drawn to depicting the outline of things. His performative drawings consist of the lighting of matches carefully placed around the edges of objects. Machell’s work might consist simply of straight lines burnt, or more interestingly the edges of cassette tapes or reel-to-reel tapes seen only after the placement and incendiary acts of the artist’s matchsticks. Machell’s work is a testament to the power and beauty of a struck match.
Manchester artist David Mackintosh (from Works/Projects, Bristol) manages to capture whatever light is on offer – his bold, simple drawings, gouache on paper larger than A1, are nearly always placed centrally with large margins – like auras – the paper, its own field. Mackintosh explains that his drawings are made quickly, using a method of ‘free association’; they start as open marks and evolve into suggestions of objects. His technique is spontaneous and apparently effortless. If this quick and free brushstroke sounds like Impressionism, it’s not – it’s more interior than retinal, his images are not based on observation. Mackintosh’s marks match inner visions. Like cloud gazing and guessing, Mackintosh begins with something ‘empty’ and finds an inner reservoir of imagery.
Mackintosh’s drawing practice extends to animated videos, which echo the work of fellow-Manchester artist Andrew McDonald (at The International 3, Manchester). McDonald’s arresting animated drawings on screens flicker dark and light, the effect similar to that given by artificial strip lighting coming on after a morning of rest. Flicker – flicker – flickflickflick ON. McDonald’s Rockall (2011) looks to be an escape – a resting spot away from everything else. Its flickering lulls us for an extended moment. An escape from reality, that’s what his drawings are for us, and probably for the artist too.
The interiority of Mackintosh and McDonald’s drawings is found in the work of other Manchester artists, for example, the fantastical, wonderfully ornamental, ink drawings of Mit Senoj (at Bureau, Manchester). Senoj’s imagination seems unbounded – each sheet of paper showing permutations of figures from an unseen world. These figures, behind the swirling serpent and carpet-like ornament, are finely crafted, foreshortened but taken from memory or day or night dreams perhaps, rather than from observation. His colours are muted, lending a look of historical weight – as if faded and improved, like wine, through time. Turning away from the tangible world too are other Manchester artists, Sophia Crilly and Mark Kennard (at Bureau.) Crilly has been drawing portraits of pioneers of modernism in her project entitled A History of Exhibitions & Spaces. Beginning with pre-existing portraits which Crilly re-works, she’s keeping their likenesses in circulation – part homage part irony, perhaps. Kennard’s abstract paintings are also homages of sorts – not only to the tradition of abstraction but also to the effect of the city at night. His Untitled, ‘says’ Manchester – grey tonal field with heightened dripping bursts of colour. Their fluorescence screams WAKE UP, an upper coming from below, nightclub – 3 a.m. bright lights at the base.
Manchester is a city of artists turning inwards for inspiration, or at least away from their windows. Iain Andrews (at Man&Eve, London) refers to past works from the painterly tradition, his colours brightened, twice removed from nature. Andrew Bracey (at Castlefield Gallery) makes reconfigured art historical paintings also in near-fluorescent tones, like an art history slideshow gone awry. Elsewhere in the show Samantha Donnelly’s 3D sculptural collages, composite sculptures named after cocktails, stand proudly on a bar or altar-like plinth. Donnelly’s work reminds us cocktails are the new Communion wine. These are art works of the late night, commenting but also standing for über-glamourised consumption. Cosmopolitan, Death in the Afternoon, and Fashion Victim: Donnelly’s is also work of the interior, but of the interior of the nightclub. Donnelly’s colours are the unnatural colours of spray tans and garish, disposable nightclub wear. Like another accomplished Mancunian feminist, Linder, Donnelly’s collages take to task the media’s virtual-strangulation of women.
London artist Andy Holden (at Works/Projects) also refers to life spent under artificial lights. Tones designed to comfort, or seduce, or to please in their natural contexts of interior design or body ornament are found in his playful work. Holden’s use of eye shadow, lipstick shades, and Homebase emulsions show an artist refusing his limits – sweeping it all in, his frames extended beyond the beyond of an artist’s studio. Holden’s work says YES to it all.
Other highlights from The Manchester Contemporary include the pencil and watercolour drawings of Manchester artist Rachel Goodyear (at The International 3) and the Peaceable Kingdom paintings from New York artist John Finneran (from Arcade Gallery, London.) Both Goodyear and Finneran ask us to see animals in a different way, a way which bridges the divide between our realm and theirs. Witty references to contemporary social manners, by way of the greater animal kingdom, are found in Works/Projects’ artist Edwina Ashton’s makeshift figural sculptures, and her bird-beaky performance costumes. In Ashton’s work the artist’s body is absent but only just. And fool-the-eye humour is found in work by Susan Collis (from Seventeen Gallery, London) with her remarkable mimicry of the detritus of gallery spaces between de-installation and installation of the next exhibition. Collis’s clever work – for example, 18 carat white gold made to look like pencil height marks for hanging – make us guess again, and again. Hers is the ultimate case of an artist dressing down for her own show.
Later, I think of my visit the day before to see work by Pierre Adolphe Valette on show currently at The Lowry in Salford (until 29 January 2012). This 19th century Frenchman-turned-Mancunian developed a keen understanding of the aesthetics of rain. He turned Manchester’s misty vistas into something that communicates to others – like lyrics speaking, or like drawing, making and matching across divides – physical, visual, social – that is what Mancunians have learnt to do so very well.
The Manchester Contemporary ran from 27 – 30 October.
Pierre Adolphe Valette continues at The Lowry until 29 January 2012.
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Courtesy the artist and Ceri Hand Gallery
David Mackintosh Head & Thing (2010)
Courtesy of WORKS|PROJECTS
Andrew McDonald, Rockall (2011)
Courtesy Andrew McDonald and The International 3