Situated in a Grade II listed building at the heart of Salford University campus, Salford Museum and Art Gallery now finds itself a short walk from a culinary and cultural development blossoming along Salford Crescent. Alongside the perennially popular Lark Hill Place – an immersive recreation of a Northern street from the Victorian era – and a spacious café with vistas into Peel Park, Salford Museum and Art Gallery focuses on its Victorian collection and work of local relevance. Ian McKay’s Collier Street Baths beautifully bridges both of these themes.
After studying at the University of Salford McKay joined nearby Cow Lane Studios. During this time he began visiting the Grade II listed Greengate Baths on Collier Street. Built by prominent nineteenth-century architect Thomas Worthington in 1856 during the golden age for public swimming, the baths were a melting pot of local community and activity. However, by 2004, its derelict shell was listed as one of the top ten most at risk Victorian buildings in the UK.
McKay’s paintings focus on the baths’ external architecture articulated in muted and earthy tones, abstracted to the point of ambiguity. An ethereal nature and sense of change or loss comes from his blend of colour, whilst his wandering lines suggest a haunting presence. Though no figures are depicted in these planes of isolation the decisiveness of line is clear as marks cut across the atmospheric backgrounds. The medium is not confined to the canvas faces but instead bleeds down the sides producing works with a three dimensional, even architectural quality.
Grids of smaller works and a large triptych entice you into piecing them together, attempting to navigate the abstraction in search of a recognisable form. Instead we achieve, at most, the uncanny – a glimpse of something we might have a reference point for. These hunches are encouraged by the vitrines of preparatory drawings and reference material running like a backbone down the centre of the space. The museological connotations of the cases draw you to them as a source of information to help interpret the surrounding works. The sketches and newspaper clippings inside give a glimpse into McKay’s process, documenting form and colour experiments. The developmental arcs are easily traced from this into the final works installed across the gallery.
Despite the sterile space being a world away from the derelict building that inspired the work, there are hints towards it. At either end, high on the walls, swimming pool tiles spell out ‘shallow end’ and ‘deep end’. This grounds the viewer and evokes memories, maybe even fears, of the communal pool reinforced for locals by the installation of a towel rail adorned with Collier Street Baths branded towels. Whilst the porcelain signage acts as a subtle nod to nostalgia the towel rail appears disparate, almost ghostly.
Areas of Salford and Manchester are being rendered almost unrecognisable by developers either providing cultural and social capital or gentrification, depending on your point of view. It is unclear, therefore, whether recent news of the baths’ sale to developers will reinstate or erase its former sense of community, save it from dilapidation or continue the city’s architectural whitewashing. Either way, McKay’s pieces will function as not only a standalone body of work, but also as abstract documentation of a goliath of architecture and a community hub long since faded.
Collier Street Baths is at Salford Museum and Art Gallery 14 December 2019 – 26 April 2020.
Laura Biddle is a collection coordinator, assistant curator and writer based in Manchester.