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The Manchester Contemporary: Maddeningly Gripping

Jonathan Schofield is uplifted and bemused by the latest in contemporary art

Published on September 30th 2012.

The Manchester Contemporary: Maddeningly Gripping

THE GALLERY owner of Seventeen Gallery said it without batting an eyelid, without any apparent irony, rather with a weary certainty of our scepticism.

'She uses traditional craft techniques to produce work which may look like a load of crap'.

There was much to infuriate and annoy in The Manchester Contemporary. Much to make you clench your fists and rage. There was also so much to enjoy and adore, so much to lift the spirits.

On the floor there were three twisted carpet grips (see main picture above). It looked like they'd been left by mistake during the fit-out.

Instead it was art.

They were the work of Susan Collis and while looking like 'crap' they'd been expensively, coated, polished and worked with gold leaf and other precious materials. Apparently this had taken hours and hours. 

The gallery price was £3,000. On the wall was a piece of wood with screwheads protruding made from white gold. That was £6,000.

The group I was going round with would never have known anything about this hidden value unless the gallery owner with the long face and the lugubrious air of Eeyore hadn't told us.

A couple of people genuinely thought it all a joke being played and there was some double-bluff cleverness going on.

The little screws here are made of white goldThe little screws here are made of white gold

I tried to think it through.

Was Collis saying that even the most mundane objects can have real beauty - a trite sentiment. Or was she saying they don't have beauty until it is brought out by being made special in some way, either through technique or a trick of the eye? 

The lack of written explanation about artists' ideas is the most infuriating and bone-idle habit of the avant-garde. Throughout The Manchester Contemporary I wanted to have something to work with. I wanted to have an idea why in this instance the artist thought gilded carpet grips should grip me. I wanted a leg-up, an assist, just some bloody help. It all seemed such a bother for so little result. 

Eeyore, the gallery man, was a poor provider of any such assistance. When I asked him, he sort of shrugged and said it was up to me.

There is much to infuriate and annoy in The Manchester Contemporary. Much to make you clench your fists and rage.

Ah right - yeahAh right - yeah

There is a Swedish video of a man walking through various cities wearing a different striped t-shirt everyday, there is agitprop stuff such as blank pieces of paper bearing single words such as 'Don't'. 

I passed two fire extinguishers and honestly, for a minute, paused and thought, are they..., yea they are part...are they?

Are they or aren't they?Are they or aren't they?

But that is just one side of The Manchester Contemporary. Because, there is also so much to enjoy and adore, so much to lift the spirits.

In the International 3 section the detail in Rachel Goodyear's disturbing images that mix the commonplace with the disturbing re-pays close examination.

One work, either on rubber or leather I think, looks funghal, but contains exquisite images that mix folklore, mythology, and contemporary fantasy novels. There is perhaps something of Goya about them, maybe the Spanish artist's 'Sleep of Reason' or 'Los Caprichos'.

Rachel GoodyearRachel Goodyear

They also carry for me that most subjective of qualities, beauty.

Maybe I contradict myself but because of the beauty and the obvious craftwork, a written explanation was less necessary. Although my-oh-my I still would have liked one, a long one.

Other works I equally adored on my trip around the show are those of Iain Andrews' fleshly, invigorating layerings of paint to represent the human condition in Man&Eve Gallery - truly stunning - and Michael Samuel's entertaining and impressive furniture-like pieces in Rokeby Gallery.

Michael SamuelsMichael Samuels

There was even something to be said for the naive but delightfully vivid paintings of historical and fairy-tale themes by the late-David Burton in the Rob Tufnell Gallery.

David BurtonDavid Burton

There was a lot to take in at The Manchester Contemporary.

But if you wanted to gain an insight into what the show's catalogue called 'critically engaged contemporary art' The Manchester Contemporary was a good place to start. And buy. It was all for sale too.

It was also an opportunity for interior debate as you glided the galleries (carrying a little core of shame that maybe you were not quite clever enough to get it).

I, as an art-lover of course, pondered lofty themes, probably scratching my chin and sighing frequently.

I thought about the fragmentation of contemporary art, its flight from being accessible to a broad public, and its retreat into a world that seemingly spins around its own self-reverent sun, yet is capable of transcendent moments of beauty.

Maddening occasionally, confusing frequently, uplifting occasionally, fascinating absolutely.

The Manchester Contemporary finishes Sunday 30 September and is located at Quay House, Quay Street, Manchester. Admission free.  

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8 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

DavidSeptember 30th 2012.

Of the things Manchester lacks compared to other rival cities,one is surely a Modern Art Museum.Their are lots of artists here and some major private collectors of modern art.But the city could be a bigger centre for art,if we had a focus for this.

1 Response: Reply To This...
Ghostly TomOctober 2nd 2012.

I was hoping that the URBIS building could have been used for this. The National Museum of Football is worthy but dull. the contents, as with the Museum of the Modern City, don't match the building.

AnonymousSeptember 30th 2012.

Looking at some of these pictures I am reminded of a classic episode from Absolutely Fabulous, especially the wood leaning against the wall! http://vimeo.com/30946854

In the words of Edina: "It all looks like bollocks so it must be worth something"

1 Response: Reply To This...
BoomboomOctober 5th 2012.

The misunderstanding is that Edina is a fictional character in a television sitcom, but if that is how you choose your role models...

Ghostly TomOctober 2nd 2012.

I'm hoping that the powers at Manchester Art Gallery don't see this stuff or even more of the wonderful art will be being replaced with rough, old planks with nails in, white gold or otherwise.

AnonymousOctober 5th 2012.

Emperors new clothes?

Dear oh dear when will they just have the guts to tell the truth " what a load of CRAP!"

BoomboomOctober 5th 2012.

Good art asks for a contribution from the viewer if you cannot bring to it your intelligence and imagination do not blame the art.

ChidlignOctober 15th 2012.

But BoomBoom some artists ask us to do too much of the work

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