Whereas much modern art aims to leave its mark on the world, the work of Jo Lathwood is, by contrast, enchanted by impermanence.

Her pieces seem to arise in part from her efforts to reconcile the inspiration to make something more with the knowledge that there is already too much. As such, they seems to stand to one side of a culture driven by a voracious appetite for novelty, a hunger algorithmically designed never to be sated.

At the centre of Making Up, the umbrella title covering Lathwood’s period of residence at The Lowry in Salford, is a work in progress; one which, over the course of the exhibition, will turn a circle from assembly to disassembly, completing the journey from being to nothingness. Or, to sacrifice poetry for accuracy, a nearnothingness, since the timbers she uses will be broken down only to be put back together again for one further lifecycle, this time as a number of crates, portable enough to be given away once the main attraction has ended.

Image by Michael Pollard

The site-responsive aspect of the piece lies in the grain of these wooden boxes, intended to be suggestive of the Quays’ role in commerce when the Ship Canal served as a symbol both of civil engineering and civic pride. This was before the inexorable rise of the container ship whose freight required a much wider berth, ushering it into obsolescence.

The construction will take shape in a green-walled gallery space, recycling palettes used for deliveries and repurposing the paints left behind by the Gruffalo exhibition preceding it, revealing its form from day-to-day. Simultaneously, Lathwood’s labours, in a manner akin to the conditions in which PJ Harvey recorded her Six Hope Demolition Project LP in full public view at Somerset House, can be overseen, between her working hours of 11 and 5, screened via video from the basement-cum-workshop beneath The Lowry itself.

Revolution of a kind is the sculpture’s starting point; the first of its structures to be put in place is a rotating viewing platform. The completed work will lead towards it, offering a wheelchair-accessible vantage point, both roundabout and cul-de-sac. Like Lathwood‘s ladders (more of which below), it will offer a new perspective, one which can be taken in following a formal opening event on February 3.

Image by Michael Pollard

Its intrinsic circularity is emblematic for Lathwood, charting change as process, fluid and precarious, rather than a more linear progression, incremental with certainty. Which is where, perhaps, her portraits of ladders, conceived during lockdown, come in. Hung at fixed points on the gallery walls, their first rung – rendered in gouache – lines up in contrasting steadfastness to the preconceived impermanence of the centrepiece sculpture. By the second tier, however, the scalpel-like precision of the paper collages belies their increasing impracticality; plausible on paper, in three dimensions, gravity would rapidly undermine their stability. The third step, rendered large on salvaged pages, delineated in a sustainable ink crafted from oak galls, emphasises their ironic unsustainability. Collapsing under the weight of their own expectations, they are stairways to nowhere.

They find their echo in an earlier series of works by Lathwood, also using the ladder motif. Leave What You Find is not present here not least because it’s no longer present at all. Constructed from natural materials that lent themselves to brief existence, they symbolised many of the principles of her open Manifesto For Making Sustainable Artwork, displayed here with blank bulletpoints, an ellipsis intended to encourage involvement and an acknowledgement that this work, too, remains in progress.

Such open-endedness seems characteristic of Lathwood’s process, ensuring that the circle, if never quite whole, is, as a consequence, never closed. Consider Making Up an invitation to join the precious impermanence. RSVP not required.

By Desmond Bullen

Main image by Michael Pollard


Jo Lathwood: Making Up is at The Lowry, Salford until March 3, 2024. For more information, click here