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Focus on Art

Thalia Allington-Wood’s fortnightly dissection of artworks in Manchester: this week Anne Desmet at the Whitworth

Published on May 1st 2008.


Focus on Art

What and where: Mirror Image x2 (archways) at the Whitworth Art Gallery

Date: 2008

Artist: Anne Desmet

Who’s she?
Said to be ‘one of the most original talents in contemporary artist-printmaking’, Anne Desmet trained at the Ruskin School of Art, Oxford. Working from home in London, she primarily uses wood engraving and linocut relief to create prints and mixed media collages that display skill and eye for detail. Urban Evolution gives us Desmet’s focus on buildings and urban landscapes, themes which have dominated her work since the early 90s and her scholarship in Rome.

Mirror image of what?
Manchester’s Victoria Baths. These are a couple of miles from Whitworth Art Gallery and a place the artist has spent years visiting and re-visiting. Mirror Image x2 Archways is one of 29 pieces Desmet has created at the Baths - the largest body of her work on a single building. Victoria Baths, built in 1906, is an exuberant building completed at the peak of Imperial confidence and civic pride. It comes with stained glass widows, coloured tiles and stunning ironwork. Left to rot – until it won money from BBC’s Restoration series in 2003 - Desmet’s work captures a still moment in development, before the restoration of the building began.

Mirror Image is printed twice on the front and rear of a translucent paper sheet and has a wonderfully subtle depth. The wash of powder blue creates liquid light over the room, tiles reflecting water. The two images of the archways mean that the print extends past the restraints of the building. Desmet transforms the space into a sensation: the experience of being within the depicted territory.

Elongated corridors, hidden alcoves, narrowing focal points are all emphasised to make the space seem distant and fantastical. Shafts of sunlight suggest unknown spaces beyond. This morphed perspective is present in many of Desmet’s other prints, the perception of looking down a crooked staircase in ‘Seeds of Change’ or up at a towering marble dome in ‘Pantheon tondo’.

Most poignant in Mirror Image x2 Archways is the sense of isolation that is present in such huge vacant spaces. Looking at Desmet’s work, you experience the echoing sounds, silence and devastating emptiness of this dilapidated building, once filled with noisy life.

So what’s it saying?
Desmet explores the wonder of human construction and the close relationship buildings hold with aspirations and desires. This is explicitly evident in her Babel Tower series, which draws upon the biblical account of man’s over-weening ambition. Her artwork ‘Tower of Babel (sandstone)’, with its exposed interior and foundations, shows, as Desmet explains, the ‘vulnerable yet aspirational qualities of towers…and the fragility of human dreams’.

The prints aim to create a fascination with transformation, time and how urban landscapes affect our consciousness and experiences. Our identity is formed by where we call home, our surroundings. Surroundings that hold a historic necessity. They will degrade, be left to crumble: they will then regenerate or be replaced. For better or for worse we are within constant metamorphosis. This is what Desmet’s art examines – architectural evolution in relation to our own natural development. In other words, watch out, it isn't going to last forever.

Is there anything else?
Oh yes there is. You can feast yourself on Anne Desmet’s heroic printmaking ancestors. In the next room is City Visions which gives you a role call of big-names, Piranesi, Hogarth, Hiroshige, Sickert, Nevinson and so on. The two shows complement each other perfectly. Definitely go along when you get a chance.

Anne Desmet’s exhibition: Anne Desmet – Urban Evolution and City Visions continues at The Whitworth Gallery, Oxford Rd, Manchester, until 3rd August 2008

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SandyMay 1st 2008.

Lovely work showing attention to detail, yet containing meaning too. Go and enjoy these little bits of carefully crafted genius.

JamesMay 1st 2008.

I thought the Desmet part was weak. Pretty but ineffectual. Loved City Visions though, people should really go. The Nevinson is superb.

TrevMay 1st 2008.

It's a wonderful show, attention to detial and moving in the sense of time passing in buildings. The City Visions meanwhile is one of the best things on in the city this spring. Nice piece Manchester Confidential, more of these please.

AKMay 1st 2008.

combine seeing the Desmet show with a look round Victoria Baths on the first sunday of the month - and get a free taster print workshop with the good people of Hot Bed Press at the baths July and August - and it only costs a quid!! - great day out

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