A series of works are shown in the centre of the image installed at different heights on a pastel pink wall.

Fayre Share Fayre

South Gallery, Whitworth. Install photograph courtesy of the artists and A Modest Show.

A Modest Show (the collateral programme to British Art Show 9 in Manchester) invites attendees to ‘Eat Manchester Artists’. And so I ask myself, as I stand in the South Gallery of the Whitworth, its walls painted a fleshy pink in honour of the group exhibition Fayre Share Fayre: is the gallery simply a stomach? I could draw all sorts of crude scatological analogies (and trust me, I did, critical rigour be damned). But I’m going to try and resist gauche temptations, and instead focus on the basic metaphor of the digestive tract as the processing of raw material into energy for the wider system of which it forms a part.

The raw material that the gallery digests is multiform. It is the artworks on display here, of course, and their constituent materials too: pigment and binder, canvas and board, cellulose substrate of photographic negative and resultant print on silken paper, the ones and zeroes of digital video as well as the flat-screen which displays them. But it is also the artists and their subjects themselves. The traces of their contact which they leave behind on the surface of the work before it goes out into the world to be consumed; whether ideas or accidents, brushstrokes or other ephemeral gestures. I don’t believe that we — the audience, that is — are intended for consumption, but nonetheless, the system takes in our productions too. Our ideas about the work (even this one), the brief snippets of the conversation between the group stood at the wall, laughter, the awkward start-stop way in which we have to engage our bodies to move around the space and take it all in.

If these raw materials are non-existent, then like the human-system, the gallery-system begins to consume itself from within, ultimately withering away. If, on the other hand, there is a rich soup of materials upon which it might sup, the system grows stronger — delicate flavours and sense-impressions at times rising out of the nutritious, murky broth to be savoured.

A large painted canvas showing a woman's face covered in sweets is above a smaller drawing of ice creams, with a green circle off to the right side.
Installation view of Ruth Murray, ‘Süßlich’ (2010), Claes Oldenburg ‘Ice Cream Desserts’ (1976) and Wayne Warren ‘Disruption’ (2022) (on loan from a Private Collection). Image courtesy of the artists and A Modest Show.

Ruth Murray’s hyper-real and gargantuan canvas ‘Süßlich’ (2010) is nestled up against Claes Oldenburg’s sketch-like and relatively diminutive etching ‘Ice Cream Desserts’ (1976); in the former the subject’s face is obscured by multi-coloured chocolate M&Ms, a gaze and the hint of dry lips piercing through the crisp, candy-covered growths, whilst in the latter pastel scoops of ice cream rest on a table-form, the unpredictable and lively scratches and squiggles of the line-work themselves appearing to melt and flow like the foodstuff it depicts. They draw from and elevate the materials of life itself, and in so doing transform those materials into energy for thought or action (and often, both). These figurative works, and the others like them in Fayre Share Fayre, serve as a starting point, a call to dream and to explore. By putting them next to each other, or by walking in different directions around the exhibition space, or by taking a step back to encompass more of the works within the same visual field, we expand our thinking about that art object.

Art, like food, is a bundle of potential, and even if the end-point is always the same, the way it is prepared, combined and consumed will lead us on wildly different experiential and intellectual tangents, conscious and subconscious. Within the context of the gallery, the raw materials share their meaning with one another, and as a result reconfigure each other. As Oldenburg would note in an interview in 2015, ‘…there is no such thing as a perfect lamb chop; you can make all types of lamb chops. And that’s true of everything. And people eat it and it changes and disappears.’ [1]

The two works by Lee Elias included in the exhibition — a cover illustration from Black Cat, the mystery comic which Elias was a penciller and inker for between 1951 and 1963, and a framed issue of Chamber of Chills No. 10 (1952) — seem to point in the opposite direction, however. Where one could look at the system of which the gallery is a part as reconfiguring the raw materials which it takes in towards positive ends, these works by Elias seem to presage the destructive aspects of consumption and energy-production.

A close up view of a number of works installed against a pastel pink wall. All of the works depict food in one form or another.
Installation view of works by (Above left-right) Parham Ghalamdar, Robin Megannity ‘Pica’ and ‘Fruit’ (2022) A Modest Show commissioned works, Ruth Murray; (Below left-right) Richard Dean Hughes, The Artist Taxi Driver, Jamie Holman. Image courtesy of the artists and A Modest Show.

In the case of the Chamber of Chills cover art, we see two figures entering the maw of a cave, spiked icicles pressing down upon their fragile bodies like teeth as they are forced to take shelter from the storm which rages around them. A menacing face outlined in blue in the rock above them – they will indeed power the system, but to what end? The cover illustration for Black Cat, unique in its presentation amongst the works in the exhibition insofar as it is aggressively screwed directly into the wall by all four corners, displays the results of that excessive energy-production. A man’s face and hands melt away as he looks on in abject terror, his suffering rendered in vivid and gruesome detail. Globs of flesh and sinew dripping from his bones, a gleaming bar stamped ‘radium’ suspended mid-air in front of him. As per Gilles Deleuze:

‘Meat is not dead flesh; it retains all the sufferings and assumes all the colours of living flesh. It manifests such convulsive pain and vulnerability… every man who suffers is a piece of meat. Meat is the common zone of man and the beast, their zone of indiscernibility; it is a “fact,” a state where the painter identifies with the objects of his horror and his compassion.’ [2]

The inclusion of these works speaks to a conception of those raw materials (art, artists, and the subjects which they are depicting and working alongside) as merely grist for the mill, destined to be used up, and ultimately destroyed. The political message of other works in the exhibition such as Hilary Jack’s dual-screen video-work ‘Corruption’ (2020), Raimi Gbadamosi’s ‘Starvation Is A Cure for Pickiness’ (2008) and, perhaps most evocatively, Scottee’s ‘The Legacy of Poverty’ (2021), a blistering, Holzer-esque letter-board marquee which attacks the Conservative government’s treatment of children surviving on food parcels, furthers this consumptive narrative. When combined with the roots of the overarching programme’s title, based on Jonathan Swift’s satirical 1729 essay ‘A Modest Proposal,’ in which the writer encourages impoverished Irish families to sell their children’s flesh as food for the rich — the double entendre title of Fayre Share Fayre is made apparent. It simultaneously evokes both the darkness of the bacchanalian revelry which goes on amongst the upper echelons of society despite the harshness of life for the many downtrodden souls that live to serve them, and an alternative culture of giving freely, of sharing and mutual support.

I feel like the vaguely-defined silhouette in Sean Penlington’s ‘Meathead’ (2010): viewed from behind, we see a crop of hair, an ear, and a pile of medium-to-well-done steaks floating from the crown of the figure into the aether (or are they floating from the aether into the figure?). Painted in Penlington’s self-described ‘shorthand’ fashion, the image is unashamedly comedic, whilst at the same time acting as an allegory for the concept of the group-exhibition-as-food and the unbridled decadence of the fayre. It’s overwhelming when encountered all at once, since there’s a lot of meat here; try to eat it all in one sitting and you’ll probably end up feeling stuffed.

Fayre Share Fayre is at the Whitworh South Gallery until 4 September 2022.

Michael D’Este is a photographer and writer based in Greater Manchester. 

[1] https://www.interviewmagazine.com/art/claes-oldenburg

[2] Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, trans. Daniel W. Smith, (London: Continuum), 23.

Published 01.07.2022 by James Schofield in Reviews

1,333 words