If you’re familiar with Manchester, you’ll also be acquainted with its changing face. The city is a site of relentless construction, and as the old is raised to make way for the new it has become increasingly difficult to find space to make exhibitions. Tunnel Vision, the latest presentation at Bunker Gallery introduces ten paintings by Saddleworth-based artist Genevieve Slater, which seemingly capture the jeopardy of the space where they are presented. Bunker Gallery is as you might imagine from the name, a subterranean basement where its covert qualities and imperfections are more power to its charm. The gallery is below the PS Mirabel project space and studios, and is curated by CATFLAP collective, a group of graduates from Manchester School of Art who have carved a name for themselves on the Manchester art circuit.
I arrive at the gallery through a labyrinth of pedestrian diversions and scaffold tunnels (very appropriate) and was offered the opportunity to chat to Slater about her work. At first glance the paintings seemed to be another example in the trend of artists re-appropriating cartoon imagery, something I’ve seen time and again in the last few years. This is certainly partly true, but on closer inspection these paintings are intelligently subtle, tantalisingly nuanced and streamlined. The cartoon comic-book drawings adopted here are all to do with symbolism and don’t fall back on easy nostalgic familiarity. Slater explains that the paintings are a continuation of a practice honed at the Slade School of Fine Art where she graduated in 2016, a school where new recruits were told to forget all they thought they knew about art.
I am shown around the exhibition and made aware of the recipe that’s integral to a typical Slater painting: “it’s all about balance, I approach painting like I’m making a perfect salad” – this approach appears to make a lot of sense, and it’s what makes these works strong. With traceable roots in the artists that have influenced her, she explains at length an appreciation of Patrick Caulfield, Allison Katz and David Batchelor. The works here are a harmony of technically nimble colour plain and well-appointed motif, a deceptively simple process in a conscious aim to reduce not just visual noise, but the noise in the process of making a painting: “to distil a process of reduction is the ultimate goal.”
In this knowledge the cartoon elements seen here can be read anew, all source material is pre-digital and hand drawn from mid-20th century America, even the most ardent comic-geek would be hard pushed to identify exactly where they are from, and that’s the point; they are lifted from original context, reduced down to the essential elements and therefore hold an uncanny and at times unnerving power. Slater likes how cartoons are considered demonstrative of low-culture yet hold the ability to engage with the most loaded of subjects, a raw and often crude comment on society in a friendly and familiar form: “cartoon space is safe, approachable and encouraging, but often deals with heavy subject matter.”
The paintings on display are not part of a strict series but demonstrate a maturity and consistency in style that assuredly achieve the artist’s aim to “elevate the ordinary and the everyday” in a well-chosen clash of low and high culture. Slater seems to borrow from both the traditions of American regionalist painting and European minimalism with her methodical ordering of pictorial space. Two highlights are ‘Green Landscape (Vanishing American Highway)’ (2019) and ‘Grey Landscape (a Rock Covered by Grass)’ (2019) with tantalising titles that trigger the involuntary memory and have the ability to transport you to a moment in time. Bunker might be small but with exhibitions such as Tunnel Vision the intention is obviously mighty, and the quality high.
Matt Retallick is a curator and writer based in Manchester.
Tunnel Vision, Bunker Gallery, Manchester.
16 February – 6 April 2019.