Established in 1984, Castlefield Gallery was, in its first years, an outpost in Manchester’s geography, as important in its way as Night & Day‘s bridgehead on Oldham Street but predating it by seven years.

Its current show celebrates its ruby anniversary, not only in drawing back some of those artists who exhibited in that first, heady year but, in the same pioneer spirit, looking forward to the shapes of things to come.  

40 Years of the Future, Painting at Castlefield Gallery, installation view. Photographed by Jules Lister.

Up to a point, there is little escaping the gravitational pull of the times in which it was conceived on the art that it births. Unsurprisingly, there’s a discernible demarcation point, a sort of dateline, between the larger, more abstract pieces that represent the majority of the paintings produced in the 1980s, and the smaller-scale, more representational works that make up the more contemporary submissions. 

On the whole, the former bear up well, passing the test of time, revealing more in their canvases than the echo of nostalgia. They emerge as pieces of both their period and ours. Sarah Feinmann’s Umber Field, its palette of sun-blistered, weather-beaten colours redolent of urban peripheries, is as apposite to a city fraying at its edges with redevelopment as it was at the end of the 80s.  

Among their present-day counterparts, there are talents which have the like potential to achieve escape velocity, their merits unpinning them from the mood board of the 20s, so that they shine with the promise of a more lasting vitality.  

Preston-based Azraa Motala, whose larger scale I Beg You To Define Me, a portrait that looks back at imperialism with defiant hauteur, is displayed in Manchester Museum’s South Asia Gallery and has two pieces here. In common with I Beg You, both resist being stitched up by the imposition of other cultures’ pattern books, unpicking those threads to replace them with an embroidery of her own design. May, for instance, is a more contemplative portrait than its predecessor, its female subject cradling a pomegranate, Iran’s national fruit, its exposed flesh tender as a heart.  

Left: Robin Megannity, the cold read (2024); right: Azraa Motala, Untitled (2024), photographed by Jules Lister.

Robin Megannity, whose works translate digital images into pellucid, realist oils, seems in his recent pieces to be working through a fascination with knives. Beautifully rendered, objets d’art in themselves, it’s hard to admire them without being reminded of the ugliness they carve out in lives cut short by hair-trigger sensitivities, all too quick to see threat in offence. Still, Megannity’s paintings seem to gain in translation, the uncanny inherent in the digital imbuing them with the occult potency their trappings seem to evoke. In that spirit, The Cold Read, with its image of a Tarot card impaled on an icy dagger, contrives to be more disquieting than the sum of its props.  

Less concerned with the conventions of naturalistic representation, Katie Tomlinson operates with a broader brush. Earnest though her conversations might be, her invitations are made with humour, their importance not fenced off by self-importance. Here, I Want Money, Power and Glory appears to frame two arsonist cats, flames dancing in their impassive eyes  – one making good its escape in an inferno of their own devising, raging outside a boulangerie sticky with oil paint and lipstick. Like semi-domesticated sphinxes, their aims are inscrutable, although a clue to their manifesto may lie in the painting’s title.  

Ultimately, that 40 Years feels more prospective than retrospective, that the now eclipses the then, augurs well for the artistic future. Secure on its Castlefield promontory, the gallery’s beacon continues to light the way forward. 

By Desmond Bullen

Main image: Gary Wragg, Clothes Horse no Bather 4 (2023), photographed by Jules Lister


40 Years of the Future: Painting is at Castlefield Gallery, Manchester until June 23, 2024. For more information, click here.