Over the weekend I spent an hour in a regional art gallery I hadn’t visited before that turned out to be a bit of a gem.

Built in 1925, the art deco magnificence of Stockport Art Gallery and War Memorial is reason enough to visit this most peculiar of buildings which juxtaposes art with the remembrance of a town’s fallen under one roof. As most war memorials are normally exposed to the elements where they are subject to not inconsequential weathering, this seems to be a completely practical arrangement as well as an original one, and the shelter of Stockport’s temple-like space offers the privacy necessary for introspection.

Lest I become too absorbed by a beauty not uncharacteristic of many of our less well-attended galleries (and we are spoilt when it comes to architectural heritage in England), it’s the art I’m here for. Like the building I’m standing in, Caroline Johnson’s new exhibition, Northern Routes, testifies to subtle triumphs of the imagination. Johnson is an accomplished and prolific urban sketcher, and as such is free to dispense with mannerism and express herself in more incautious lines of ink, charcoal and pencil, embracing watercolour and delicate collage. She recently won the Guardian Witness Award in the Human Interest category for her drawing Mum in Hospital (chosen from more than 60,000 entries) and is the official Urban Sketcher for Manchester.

Caroline JohnsonNorthern Routes is the descendant of There’s a Rainbow in the Road, her previous exhibition held in these parts, the title of which hints at her quest to find beauty in the ordinary. Such a rationale provides unexpected scenes. The aforementioned Mum in Hospital is a simple line drawing of Johnson’s sick mother lying in a hospital bed, and is both touching and poignant. However, it’s the built environment of Manchester, Salford, Blackpool, Leeds, Blackburn and Stockport that forms the bulk of Northern Routes. Road junctions, warehouses and apartment blocks feature heavily, hardly subjects we might associate with the transcendent. Search for it, though, and you’ll find it: the details of Johnson’s compositions (neither sketch, drawing, painting nor collage really, but a combination of these) stick in the mind long after you’ve left the exhibition room, always a sign of good art.

You might, for example, think an overpass on Manchester’s Oxford Road an unlikely subject but, in Mancunian Way, the solid depiction of its concrete curve butting in from the side of the frame may give you pause to adjust preconceptions. Cars are an inescapable fixture of the urban landscape, and are treated according to the focus of the work. In Old Granada Studios, Manchester, they are whited-out, passive ghosts: only the outlines of their parked forms are visible so as not to detract from the red-orange brickwork of architectural subject; yet despite this technique, our eye returns to them, as if they are a riddle to be solved. In contrast, Yellow Van, Chapel Street depicts a yellow van just leaving the picture, paradoxically drawing our attention to the blank, uninspiring form of Trinity House looming in the background. Buses, Cycles and Taxis, Stockport is a bigger test of the artist’s rationale, but the challenge of finding beauty in the banality of a road junction is met by the inclusion of a girl crossing a road in the distance, and the seagulls set further above her head. Such details detract from grimness, instead adding a hint of mystery to the scene.

Mum in Hospital, by Caroline Johnson

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in Rehearsal is an ambitious, panoramic work, the product of two days spent sketching at MediaCity in Salford. Colour is limited to the classical musicians’ hair and instruments, and we notice the facial expressions of patient violinists waiting to join in with vigorous cellists playing on the right. The visual abstractness of sheet music is magnified to totemic proportions, providing an appropriate backdrop to the tightly packed collective.

Robinson’s Brewery, Stockport is a classic urban scene, all washed-out orange brickwork, rooftops and a mass of windows, executed from an elevated position. Just as appealing is Canal Street, Manchester which cleverly employs green magazine paper for tree foliage. Similarly, in Chapel Street with Pigeons a lone pedestrian approaches a group of collage pigeons. Shadowy tones and a prominent ‘To Let’ sign contribute to the sense of back street decay. Johnson’s work is occasionally reminiscent of urban photography in its effectiveness at conveying the dramatic moods of city spaces.

Factory by the Canal, Castlefield gives way completely to colour; no blank cars here or white edifices there, just rusty brickwork tones – the dappling effect of a sunset, perhaps – and a strip of blue at its base comprising fencing, cars and a non-descript outbuilding. In a similar vein, Central Pier, Blackpool feels more painterly and impulsive, thanks to its angular take on a corner of this pier in which nothing is quite the subject: half a big wheel, a boardwalk thronged with people, the end of a building. Like Buses, Cycles and Taxis, Stockport, there’s a small grouping seagulls, here providing a real sense of depth to the work and emphasising the height of the pier above the shore.

In contrast to her outdoor executions, The Big Room, Blueprint Studios, one of many sketches made during the artist’s sojourn at Elbow’s studios in Salford, is a fine example of Caroline’s ability to paint calm, intimate interiors, like the blueish-grey tones of two larger works, Washing Drying on a Stove in Brittany, and the cosy, book-lined living room of La Mardelle, complete with gramophone, both painted during the 20 years Johnson lived in Brittany.

Northern Routes continues Johnson’s intrepid exploration to find beauty in the everyday, and in particular the urban landscape. To her, the brickwork and tarmac of the en route streets and overlooked architecture of Northern England are diamonds in the shape of the visually familiar, brought to expressive shine in the artist’s mind.

By Matthew Graham, Art Correspondent


Northern Routes is on at Stockport Art Gallery and War Memorial until December 16, 2014. For further information please visit http://stockportartgalleryproject.com.