It’s always a delight to have the excuse to evade the traffic scything a border between Deansgate and Castlefield, and, having made the hazardous crossing, to find oneself tracing the more tranquil byways that meander towards Saul Hay Gallery. At one remove from the onrush of the city centre, on an evening beginning to laze beneath the promise of summer, there can be few spots more congenial to tarry in the name of art.  

In keeping with the welcoming interiors of Saul Hay, the premise of Cotton On MCR‘s open exhibition, In Manchester 2023, is impeccably egalitarian; the sole requirement being that the submitting artist is affiliated with the Greater Manchester sprawl to some degree, whether that be by employment, residence or study. Part of the pleasure in attending, then, lies in a slow exposure to the commonalities of the eclectic selection elected, as though they were tea leaves at the bottom of a china cup, revealing the region’s artistic zeitgeist.  

Most obviously, to be connected to Manchester itself, it seems, is to be susceptible to its municipal charisma. Accordingly, there are abundant character studies of its built environment, and, among these, a certain tendency to draw upon the lasting romance of concrete. As new glass buildings increasingly seem to resemble mirrors reflecting a vampiric nothing, perhaps its material solidity exemplifies something more permanent, rooted more deeply and distinctively in the soil between the Irk and the Irwell.  

While the least of these city portraits have an artisan market decorative appeal, the most effective among them swim against preconception’s tide, encouraging the viewer to look at the scene anew. For instance, Cara Ashton’s Brutal, screen-printed on muslin, seems to speak of Tintwistle’s own Vivienne Westwood, and, through her, of Manchester’s history of insurrection, both political and musical. Stockport’s Ian Smith, submitting as The Marquetry Shack, on the other hand, insinuates the medium into his message. His Stevenson Square Going Nowhere, time-stamped by the now-effaced graffito of David Bowie at that locale, echoes the mutability of the city’s own surfaces through being rendered in natural wood veneers. At the same time, the work is a gentle reminder that the city itself is a canvas, a work that is always in progress.  

A second thematic seam, less exhaustively mined, seems to snake its serpentine path back to the Young British Artists, feted by the London scene in the 1990s, albeit with a less disproportionate self-regard. As a hot glass practitioner, Grace Sharp’s 100mg Daily has a more obviously ambivalent relationship with prescription medication than Damien Hirst, her dark, misshapen capsules calling into question the bright promises of the pharmaceutical industry. Similarly, Bloody Hell, Ruth Fildes’ evocation of the visceral cycles of womanhood achieves its saltwater effects with an understatement that’s the Northern polar opposite of Tracey Emin.

While these works allude to the human condition, there’s a comparative dearth of art on the human scale. In this respect, Jason Carr’s forthright The Maze, whose half-naked decadent is positioned to offer a prominently louche welcome, is a little misleading. Complementing the urban, rather, there is the pastoral, exemplified by the paper-cut sharpness of Take Flight, a collage by Emily Gates which takes pains not to sharpen nature’s edges.  

All things considered, In Manchester 2023 offers a destination in which to linger.

By Desmond Bullen


For more information about Cotton On MCR, click here.