If you like, you could see it as a double feature. Marple’s Mura Ma gallery is seeing out the year with a pair of concurrent exhibitions, each sharing top billing.

For reasons of proximity, it makes sense to consider Precious Little first. It’s there as you walk through the door, its works on a smaller scale beckoning you towards them, inviting closer scrutiny. A group show, each artist is represented by a brace of works, some hung in tandem, others more widely scattered.

Home Time Glow by Jen Orpin

Disparate in everything but size, there’s a wealth in their economy. Pick of the pieces is Jen Orpin‘s emotive pairing, Home Time Glow and Night Fall Lights, each capturing the pull and push of December’s gathering dark, drawing down the skies while drawing people in. The works stand both at the edge of town and the fringe of year, at once weary and hopeful.

Flavourless Fruit by Joe O’Rourke

It’s a credit to the other exhibitors that they bear comparison with an artist who has recently had work acquired for Manchester Art Gallery’s permanent collection. Also thriving at the urban peripheries are Helen Thomas’s twin acrylics of Canadian Fleabane, a plant that flowers through cracked pavements in spaces where the built-up begins to give way to the tumbledown. Painted with an attentive realism that resolves almost to abstraction, they evoke the tenacity of a natural world that refuses to be concreted over.

Joe O’Rourke’s pieces also seem to work in the cracks of a human-made world. Flavourless Fruit in particular mines a deep vein of social surrealism to unearth a telling metaphor for the insipidity that is the iron pyrite at the end of capitalism’s rainbow, where an emphasis on more diminishes the quality of everything.

His works owe something to the directness of the strip cartoon, and, albeit from a different tradition, there’s something of the genre brought to an oddly psychological realism in Alison Friend’s anthropomorphisms. Her portraits of domestic species, Audrey (Quietly Judging) in particular, seem to level the playing field between the owning species and the owned, in doing so skilfully avoiding the precipice of kitsch that such works might court in clumsier hands.

The other half of the billing, Paper Thin Skin, an umbrella title for recent art by Veronica Cay, is afforded its own space in Mura Ma‘s ground floor vault. Larger in scale than the art in the group show, Cay’s works are more of a piece with one another, a collection almost exclusively of female portraiture in which the sole male is present as part of a couple.

Audrey by Alison Friend

By all accounts derived from weekly sessions in life drawing, the likenesses on display have a layered tactility that perhaps derives from Cay’s background in textile art. Typically, the first naked pencil lines mark out the bones of the work, over which layers of colour, often in mixed media, are worked, revealing character in a process that parallels decisions about making up and dressing up to display the social self.

Viewed in the context of often unstable backgrounds, themselves in varying states of stratification and decay, the technique can emphasise both a certain fragility, as in the brave face worn with incomplete conviction by the heroine of Out Of Her Depth, her frock much bolder than her expression, but also a celebratory self-assurance, bursting from the subject of No Holding Back, meeting the viewer’s gaze practically unadorned. Each could be a paperback cover, or a short story in itself, the layers of the work like strands in a narrative, lassoing the viewer’s captivation.

Seeking commonalities across the boundaries of the separate exhibitions, it is perhaps this quality that the best of the works share; an invitation to look closer, to peer into the peerless and to see things anew. It’s an ember to kindle until the return of the light.

By Desmond Bullen

          

Precious Little / Paper Thin Skin, Mura Ma, Marple until December 23, 2023. For more information, click here.

Main image: Reclaim the House by Josie Jenkins