The Manchester Contemporary: Old Granada Studios (25 – 28 September 2014)
The 6th edition of the Manchester Contemporary provides a compelling picture of the interests and obsessions of younger, emerging artists. There is a strong focus on narrative story-telling, and a high level of technical accomplishment from painters and digital artists, alike. Yet the common denominator is intelligence. This is a thoughtful generation. The work is often oblique or difficult, but it is also seductive, happy to reach out to an audience and willing to repay the effort a viewer puts in.
Bureau is a Manchester gallery, based in the city’s Spinningfields district. Their space at the Contemporary is dominated by Ray Martin, a recent graduate still in his early 20s. Martin’s vibrant, almost day-glo landscapes are derived from exotic photographs, often found on the internet. These are lyrical paintings, reflecting a desire for travel and experience, balanced by a sardonic wit that undercuts his exuberance. Bureau also represents Evangelina Spiliopoulou who shows two very formal drawings that, for all their rigor, conjure up a real warmth through accidents of shading and texture. At heart, one feels, Spiliopoulou has faith in the quiet moments when chance takes over.
Manchester’s Castlefield Gallery exhibits new drawings by Hardeep Pandhal, both at the Manchester Contemporary and at their Deansgate-based gallery. Pandhal’s illustrations are strongly narrative, with an engaging Beano-like style and a highly personal iconography. The disembodied head of a historical Sikh martyr bounces through his drawings, wryly commenting upon a comic book world populated by such figures as Al Pacino’s Scarface or the Tartan-clad Victorian hero Hector MacDonald.
Emma Talbot is a Worcestershire-born artist who also focuses upon narrative illustration. Her large-scale canvases evoke oriental carpets and trails of wisteria, creating romantic arabesque frames for scenes that explore the fears and desires of her characters, often young girls. Talbot is represented by London-based gallery Domobaal, who make a strong impression at Manchester Contemporary by creating a box-like world-within-a-world in a corner of the Old Granada Studios.
Division of Labour, a gallery based inside Worcester City Museum, show a coolly accomplished piece by Celine Berger, a French-born artist who won the Nam June Paik newcomer award in 2012. Berger’s film features an actress playing a management consultant, archly lampooning the language of business. Another award-winning female digital artist, Danish-born Lotte Rose Kjaer Skau, shows a video piece that combines dance with an exploration of a landscape, exhibited alongside a wall-mounted sculpture of driftwood. Kjaer Skau, represented by London-based IMT Gallery, makes work that is so personal and hermetic it resists interpretation, yet nevertheless exudes integrity.
The combination of video and sculpture in Kjaer Skau’s work shows how digital artists are beginning to think of videos as installations rather than films. This is also true of Joanne Masding, who exhibits with Birmingham-based Extra Special People. The smaller of Masding’s pieces at the Manchester Contemporary is displayed on two phone-sized screens, mounted at skirting board height. The digitally manipulated film comments upon the way the human eye edits as it reads a scene. A larger piece, displayed on a flat screen TV at floor level, is an enigmatic film of an object taken from, or perhaps tossed into, a furnace-like space. Masding brings a high-level of technical skill to her films, reflecting the fact that young digital artists are learning to replicate effects that were once only achievable in expensive post-production facilities. She is undoubtedly a huge talent, at every level.
The International 3 is run by Paulette Terry Brien and Laurence Lane, who are also curatorial coordinators of the Manchester Contemporary. Their Salford gallery is currently home to a solo show by the intelligent and witty Joe Fletcher Orr, who is the driving force behind Liverpool-based Cactus Gallery. At Manchester Contemporary, the International 3 space is dominated by full length figurative paintings by Polish-born painter Rafal Topolewski that are based upon works by Velasquez and others. Topolewski’s paintings play aggressive tricks with proportion and perspective, creating unsettling versions of paintings we might feel we know, while asking difficult questions about their value as attractive objects, symbols of power or displays of virtuoso technique.
Maria Stenfors, a London-based gallery, show Mela Yerka, another Polish-born artist whose work also sets out from a European tradition of portraiture. Yerka’s two works are part of a larger series based on infamous ‘other women’, mistresses and courtesans, that she paints in a dizzying array of fluent styles. Since Goshka Macuga was nominated for the Turner, six years ago, UK-based Polish artists are becoming more visible, suggesting the UK has become a natural home for an emerging generation of Polish artists.
With exhibits from Sheffield’s S1 Artspace, Middlesborough’s Platform A (showing Tony Charles’ muscular yet cerebral pieces), Newcastle’s Vane (with Kerstin Drechsel’s unsettling slices of urban drama painted in graffiti-influenced techniques), Gateshead’s Workplace Gallery and London’s Carroll/Fletcher, the 6th Manchester Contemporary has carved out a unique identity by balancing its regional identity with an international perspective. As in previous years, the Contemporary shares space with the more overtly populist Buy Art Fair. In the past, the relationship between the two has been spiky, but the Old Granada Studios provides room enough for both and the ambition of both fairs is underlined by the presence of acclaimed Palestinian artist Bashir Makhoul in a special showcase at the entrance to the studios, reprising his successful Venice Biennale show, Otherwise Occupied. Meanwhile, underfoot, the composite floor of the old studio spaces adds a hint of Manchester history.
© Nicholas Blincoe, September 2014