This review is late. I know that it’s late because here I am, writing it three days after the show has closed. The punch bowl’s dry, the party’s over, the ending – however joyous – has come and gone. This tenth and final show rounds out a bumper year for Catflap Collective and their residency at PS Mirabel’s Bunker Gallery. A year which has, under their watchful eye, seen the space shift from gift shop to Japanese garden and played host to Russian artists, hyper-realists and an infestation of digital rats.
Charmingly unrestrained in its innuendo, Happy Ending announces itself in suitably onanistic fashion. Catflap take great pains in the literature to thank themselves for making the work, for curating the show, and for all of their help and support along the way. Within this knowing joke, however, lies a grain of truth and, with it, the strength and charm of the show. This is a group painting show in its most essential terms: painters painting together, talking together, thinking together and – at times – struggling together.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the first room, in which each artist is represented by at least one piece of work. Highlights here include Arthur Simons’ ‘Untitled’ (2019), whose muted composition belies a deftness of painterly touch. In reframing – and mis-framing – the palm leaf, Simons’ drab-droll retelling circumvents potential cliché, recalling Luc Tuymans at his most urgent.
Likewise, Ellis Edwards’ ‘A Place where I grew up’ (2019) hides a subtle sophistication below its impasto surface. Underneath the Hodgkin-like clag of indecently applied pigment, further scrutiny reveals a Welsh pastoral scene of rare beauty. Technicolour fields roll to’ and fro’, jostling for position within the bounds of the small canvas. The painting suggests both a keen and keening sense of the past, yet stated in terms of the immediate present, whilst looking cautiously, with trepidation, into an unclear future.
Despite its imposing size, relative to its contemporaries, and its bizarre collaged subject-matter, it is a compliment to Katie Tomlinson’s ‘Warning! Choking hazard! Package contains large parts keep out of reach of women’ (2019) that it neither overpowers nor dominates the room. Whilst its own internal elements jostle for supremacy – a pair of gaudy porcelain dogs are overflown by a demonic coven, beneath which a miniaturised Don Quixote and Sancho Panza prepare to tilt – a curtain-wave of magma threatens to overwhelm the scene. Like Cervantes’ eponymous hero, Tomlinson’s painting impresses upon the viewer the transformative potential of imagination run riot.
Marking the threshold between this room and the next, Gwen Evan’s ‘The Bathers’ (2019) makes for a strange and uncanny proposition. Its subject, a ruddy-faced cherub drawn (almost verbatim) from the Jean-Honore Fragonard painting of the same name, is captured in a perpetual fall. The suggestion that she has become unfixed, both in time and space, is an unsettling one and speaks of an uncertainty at once both topical and timeless. The artist’s palette going one better than its Rococo antecedent, pushing the work into a nauseating, almost-fever dream territory of pinks, reds and blues.
The wilful Frankenstein-ing of seemingly-disparate artworks throughout the exhibition describes the Catflap project as comprehensively as any manifesto or mission statement could. A strange and unified whole; a ten-armed painting machine, graduate of an academy no longer in thrall to ‘ist’ or ‘ism’, in search of an eclectic house-style to call its own.
In the show’s weaker moments, hints of group-think and imitation belie an otherwise outward-looking group praxis, whilst the recourse to humour and novelty risk undermining the obvious commitment on display here. However, in its finer moments Happy Ending delivers on its promise of a vital, energetic celebration of early-career painting.
Catflap’s reign at Bunker Gallery may be at an end – artist collective Softspot have now taken over the space – however the party clearly isn’t over for the group. Liberated from hosting duties, and free to focus on their individual practice, it’s time for Catflap to emerge from the basement and greet the world at large.
After all, other people’s parties are always a lot more fun.
Happy Ending, Bunker Gallery, Manchester.
8 August – 21 September 2019.
Daniel Newsham is an artist and writer currently based in Manchester.