Paradise Works is an artist-led studio and project space, currently home to over forty artists. Established in 2017, they run a critically engaged annual programme of exhibitions, film screenings, Open Studios, projects and a residency, which supports emerging and established artists to share new work with the city of Manchester. To coincide with The Manchester Contemporary on the weekend of 16 to 18 November – a major annual art fair which attracts leading UK and international talent – Paradise Works played host to a full programme of Open Studios, exhibition previews and an evening closing party.
One preview was Tree & Leaf, a group exhibition at Division of Labour, a gallery space in Paradise Works run by Nathaniel Pitt which represents a number of international artists. The show takes its title from a J.R.R. Tolkien story which explores the journey of a painter named Niggle, who can paint a leaf like no other artist – an allegory for the creative process. The works vary greatly – from a stone carving to a row of plastic trees, like those found in a model city, and a tree stump to sit down on and read. It’s a closely packed exhibition, featuring works by twenty-one artists. Despite its old and new materials and sources of imagery, the overall effect is grounding. It feels rooted in a traditional connection between art and nature.
Another preview was up on the first floor, where independent curator and Paradise Works’ new director, Jessica Bennett, presents In the Membrane, made up of works by three in-house artists: Gabriel Kidd, Fleur Yearsley and Isaac Jordan, each the recipient of a Haworth Trust Scholarship 2022/23. The day also previewed the installation ‘Empty Galleries’ (2023) by Jack Brown and a collaborative exhibition in Jeffrey Knopf’s studio space curated with the Basement Arts Project, an art gallery and project space based in Leeds.
I arrived early for the Open Studios. Spread out over three floors of a former mill, the building feels like a perfect repurposing for an arts community. Plasterboard forms the internal walls of variously sized studios, meaning the building is a bit of a maze to someone who doesn’t know their way around, but a lack of signposting or direction feels authentic to the studios and decisively non-commercial. Inside each studio viewers can be immersed in the artist’s world: their current work, influences and processes. Paint splatters are found on the walls extending out from a propped-up Expressionistic canvas, images and references have been printed out or pulled from books and stuck onto the walls, materials were lined up on shelves or scattered on the floor, books, handwritten mantras or quotes had been placed around a desk, in a couple of the studios music was left playing to set the tone for the spaces. The range of works, media, and styles across each of the studios is massively diverse – there is an excitement to not knowing what you’ll find behind each corner and door. I also joined the tour which gave small groups the chance to have an informal chat and get an introduction to each artist.
An Open Studios is an intimate experience. The ways and the degree to which each artist has staged their space is telling of each individual, giving its own insight into the kinds of work they produce. Personal highlights of the studio tour included artist Gwen Evans, whose surrealist-tinged paintings and works on paper deal with themes of isolation and the uncanny, depicting ambiguous domestic narratives of subjects in states of solitude and private exchange. One of the most striking elements of Evans’ work is her combination of styles: faces drawn in the style of early Italian Renaissance painting are at odds with the more modern feel of her subject’s surroundings. Her representations are precise and articulate whilst retaining an ambiguity about time and place. Evans, along with Jack Brown, Mikesian Studio, Jeffrey Knopf and Alex Frost also had work at The Manchester Contemporary this year.
I also enjoyed Jordan’s small-scale oil paintings on grey card and oil board, including his ongoing series of portraits taken from sci-fi films (2021-2023) and the paintings of groups of men, ‘Untitled’ (2023), for which Jordan takes his imagery from ‘random Youtube videos of drunk men dancing in a forest’. There is a quickness to the brushwork, which lends the paintings a lack of fixity, reminding me of a low-resolution image or video. It opens the imagery up to multiple possible interpretations – the men could be dancing in a forest, or rioting, with certain paintings seeming alive with movement and fiery disorder.
Topically, Tom Lambe transformed his space into ‘Aviva Studios’, complete with an on-brand shade of yellow and the company font across the door. The floor was covered with autumn leaves and the walls hung with satirical works. It makes explicit reference to the opening of Factory International this year, which was renamed Aviva Studios once the insurance company bought the naming rights for £35 million, in one of the UK’s biggest corporate sponsorship deals for a cultural venue. This studio installation asks questions of what happens to the type of work which is allowed to be shown when multinational corporations have a large stake. Whilst made in a spirit of debate and fun, Lambe’s work nods more seriously to the real threats to an artist-led space like Paradise Works, which relies on both private and public sector funding.
On the day, I got the chance to speak to the recently appointed Director, Jessica Bennett, about the issues facing artist-led spaces, and her wider vision for Paradise Works and Manchester-based artists.
Natalie Russett: So, first things first, you started as Director of Paradise Works earlier in the year, can you tell us a bit about what you have been working on here since your arrival?
Jessica Bennett: My main thing was the Open Studios and trying to get into the rhythm of programming because Paradise Works has always done a Summer Open Studio which ties in with Manchester International Festival as well as Winter Open Studios which then ties in with Manchester Contemporary Art Fair. Just to give you context, I did previously come from Factory International –
NR: So prior to the opening at Factory International?
JB: Yes, I got this job two months before the opening of the Factory, now Aviva Studios. It was weird to only see the build-up and then the launch. Since I started, I’ve been getting to know different people and organisations in Manchester, especially our network on more of a local level and really just coming up with a bit of a business plan for the future of Paradise Works. That has been a big priority of mine, just to be like, ok: what is the space lacking, what are the artists lacking, what are the local artists needing, so that we can retain talent within Manchester.
NR: Going round the Open Studios today, it seems like community is really important to Paradise Works, how does this concept of the artist-led community structure the planning of events like today and the wider ways that you work together in the space?
JB: To me, the artist-led has always been about community and solidarity more than anything and that is something I’ve felt since coming here. Especially when it comes to UK New Artists or the Turner Prize [two major national awards for UK artists], no one seems to be in competition with each other here and that is what I thrive off, just to see that ‘within house’ we are squashing the forced competition within the sector. I always feel like with funding and Arts Council, it’s almost as if the funders are writing the narrative for you to be in competition with each other. That’s something that I really try to hone in on, and I want to keep that mentality going forward.
NR: Today is also The Manchester Contemporary, and several studio members are exhibiting this year, can you tell us a bit about how you see their work sitting alongside other regional, national and international artists?
JB: Something I don’t like about Frieze and the bigger art fairs is that because you’re artist-led you can’t be involved if you’re not a commercial gallery, so it’s great that we have The Manchester Contemporary and it’s a great opportunity for the artists. Nat [Pitt, Curator of The Manchester Contemporary] has Division of Labour gallery space here, and it’s great that he gives Paradise Works a platform at the fair. For example today, we have the booth, but also four Paradise Works artists are exhibiting in the Pallet Show. I think it’s really important to showcase the incredible quality of what Manchester artists have to offer, and important to show that you don’t have to go to London to see that.
NR: Exactly, walking around the fair today, I thought some of the strongest work was coming from Paradise Works and Salford Scholars – and that’s a lot of emerging to mid-career artists.
JB: That’s lovely to hear! What I like about it here is it’s a mix, it’s not just early-career. I’ve said since I’ve taken it on that Paradise Works should be for you at whatever stage of your career, if it’s giving you that freedom and holding space to make work, have a residency, put an exhibition on here, write a proposal or even just get mentoring from other artists or from me, to get your next A to B in your career.
NR: And what is the process for artists getting studios here?
JB: We have a volunteer in-house Artist Steering Group, and any time that space becomes available we’ll advertise it, and email it out to our waiting list, and if people are ready they can submit an application, and that’s then discussed with the volunteer group. It’s outside of my influence, so it’s more democratic. We really try to take into consideration; the values in terms of what the studio’s lacking – can we be a bit more diverse, a bit more sustainable, a bit more creative in terms of who we are bringing in?
NR: With a large-scale commercial space opening in Manchester this year like Factory International, can you talk a bit about some of the challenges faced by an artist-led organisation like Paradise Works?
JB: Funding – it’s no secret that Factory International has been taking a lot of the council and arts funding and that does worry me, especially in terms of trying to create a sustainable model for this place. But saying that, I feel like it is also creating more opportunities. I don’t know if that’s just my personal connection, but a lot of Paradise Works artists have been getting freelance work through the Factory. Although it remains a worry in terms of our core funding; as to whether we can keep running.
NR: Finally, what do you envision for Paradise Works over the next few years? What are your hopes for the wider field of Manchester art?
JB: Say you’ve just graduated from MMU or Salford and you’re an emerging artist with your first studio at Paradise Works, what is the driver, twenty-five years from now, to get you your first solo show at the Factory? Right now, I don’t see that trajectory of how you’re going to get there, and I want to see what I can do and who I can work with to make a plan so that artists don’t have to go elsewhere. Let’s show the world what creative talent Manchester has to offer!
Paradise Works Winter Open Studios took place on Saturday 18 November. In The Membrane runs until 9 December 2023 on Saturdays by appointment only. Division of Labour’s Tree & Leaf runs until 18 January 2024.
Natalie Russett is a writer based in Manchester.
This article is supported by Paradise Works.