Like the works it anthologises, Out of the Ordinary, the title of Mandy Payne’s consistently compelling new exhibition at Manchester’s Saul Hay Gallery, is a masterpiece of considered understatement. While the pieces collected here represent urban views so commonplace as to be readily dismissed, in presenting them with an eye at once curious and empathetic, Payne enables them to be seen in a more singular light.

For all the resurgent fashionability of Brutalism, hymned by the likes of Manchester’s own Modernist Society and its patron Johnny Marr, these, in the main, are the concrete places which are overlooked, inhabited by people who have been likewise shunted into the sidings. The physical absence of their humanity from the finished works lends the compositions an almost haunted quality, giving the structures they depict something of the stillness of first light on New Year’s Day or the deeper quietness of scenes from Threads, the 1984 drama which laid bare the fall-out of nuclear war by grounding it in Sheffield.

That many of the pieces depict the conjoined siblings of Salford and Manchester is not in itself surprising. Payne, who practised as a dentist specialising in treating children and adults with learning disabilities before surrendering to her urge to create full time, began her training at the University of Manchester’s School of Dentistry in the 1980s. Here, then, in all its matter-of-fact oddness, is Pendleton’s Shopping City, its name written in pop art primary red down the sides of the 23-storey Briar Court, an arrow aimed downwards to the shopping units and charity shops at its base. Below it gapes the darkened gateway into the underworld of the pedestrian subway, its architectural ambitions these days compromised by marker pen bulletins as to who is currently accused of being a ‘slag’ and unsolicited testimonials to the benefits of ‘weed’. Abused and neglected, it’s hard to believed that it once piped music throughout its labyrinth.

Testifying to the range of materials Payne puts to use, often deploying those salvaged from the sites themselves, an image of the now-neglected Toast Rack building in Fallowfield sets it against the marble backdrop of a stormy night crackling with electricity, imbuing it, in the best tradition of the Gothic novel, with life.

In contrast, the washed-out monochromes of Looking Back, while not clearly identified with the twin cities, nevertheless recalls the unforgiving architectures against which Joy Division would find themselves posed by photographer Kevin Cummins, the austerity of the urban planning externalising the growing sparseness at their music’s heart while itself being informed by the group’s insistent velocities. Beneath the twin tower blocks there lies another subway, an even darker entry, a black hole from which not even light can return.

Other paintings seem still less tied to a particular city, and appear to speak instead of metropolitan commonalities, the way the towers buckle and the concrete cracks, whether their foundations lie in Sheffield, Edinburgh or London. The vista making up The Inherent Magic Of The Everyday could be at the glass-shattered margins of any city, un-pedestrianised and unwelcoming, its cold shoulder décor of barbed wire-topped concrete walls and iron railings fending off the threat of non-dwelling burglary.

Although never seen directly, it’s the trace of human presence, either just outside or deeper within the frame, like the red-lit windows in her Wendover Windows, which gives Payne’s works a quality closer to portraiture than to landscape art. As documents of a way of existing some distance outside the received narratives broadcast brightly on a daily basis by This Morning and The One Show, like an after-image of the 20th century, they possess a documentary value informed by a quiet compassion that withstands comparison to L. S. Lowry. So far out of the ordinary to be extraordinary, Payne’s collection is a towering achievement; one, moreover, that she seems set to build on in the future.

By Desmond Bullen

All images copyright Mandy Payne


Out of the Ordinary – Paintings by Mandy Payne is at Saul Hay Gallery, Manchester until October 23, 2022. For more information, click here.