Fiction and a shrewdly concealed reality play a large part in the work of Manchester-based artist Alistair Woods. Whether it be delicate photographic portraits approached with an enlarger, a scalpel and the precision of a surgeon; or weighty assemblages carefully pieced together from the remnants of garden gates, abandoned railway sleepers or bits of derelict buses combed from the hedgerows of the locale, every piece tells its own story. The weighty burden of history speaks to us from just beneath the surface of the meticulously crafted objects, on display as part of Common Denominator at Manchester’s Victoria Station.
It is no coincidence that Woods is a co-founder of the Depot Arts studio space, located amongst the arches of the train track a short distance from this exhibition, as it is a treasure trove of material with which to play. Elements taken from the interiors of derelict buses, found amongst the yards surrounding the studios, have made their way from abandonment to canvas; original objects rescued from oblivion and placed alongside mere suggestions of themselves, permanently embattled as if fighting off the fear of being forgotten as in On The Buses (2016), the title itself a reference to British situation-Comedy of the 1960’s. RAILWAY SLEEPERS FOR SALE (2014/15) is a piece that has undergone substantial changes since it began life as part of the Subjected To Change exhibition two years ago. Woods’ practice of recreating other people’s poorly made signage and incorporating it into his work serves to underpin the themes of hidden histories and subculture; here the wares of football merchandise bootleggers and misappropriated symbols of the notorious Leeds Service Crew, are placed amongst the relics of a bygone age of British Transport.
Over at Sadler’s Yard, a two-minute walk away from Victoria, I find myself stood in a courtyard in the twilight of early evening. Amongst the dusky shadows dotted around the edge of the space are a number of easels containing some of Alistair’s more documentary style photography. The photographs themselves describe the liminal spaces of suburban living, the point at which the culture at the heart of city living meets the culture that encircles it. When the images do not depict vacant spaces, places seemingly abandoned by humans, they feature individuals that seem disconnected from not just their surroundings but from each other, bringing to mind the painting of Edward Hopper. As I move around the yard looking at the selection of images I am occasionally buzzed by skaters using the walls and steps for practice. The atmosphere is neither threatening or tense though, in fact it seems wholly appropriate as the Yard makes its daily transition from the daytime to night-time economy.
Returning to Victoria Station much later on to get my train back to Leeds, I spot an open door on the concourse adjacent to the unit that is currently home to Woods’ exhibition. Inside two hi-vis jackets hang on the wall where brushes are propped. Looking to my right I see another door inside which hi-vis jackets are hung on the wall and a crowbar is propped in front of a sign declaring RAILWAY SLEEPERS FOR SALE. The only thing separating reality from the future is an A – board declaring one an exhibition. The future surrounds us at all times and we must learn to read the signs.
Bruce Davies is a curator based in Leeds.
Image courtesy OH OK LTD.
Alistair Woods: Common Denominator, Victoria Station & Sadler’s Yard, Manchester.
08 September – 09 October 2016.