The latest exhibition curated by Cotton On MCR, in line with its admirable intention of demystifying and democratising access to art in all its forms, is the first in response to a themed open call to creators across Greater Manchester, whether they be established or absolute beginners.

Strolling into Saul Hay Gallery’s open arms in Castlefield, it’s not wholly surprising that the initial impression Beyond Landscapes makes is somewhat akin to that created by the Manchester Open exhibition at nearby HOME, albeit on a more welcoming, less overwhelming scale. There’s hardly an inch of the gallery’s bright and homely interior that is not hung with something of interest, or given over to sculptural ornamentation in profuse variety, and yet it never feels cluttered. There is time and space to give each work the attention it deserves.

It’s attention that, on the whole, is amply repaid. The landscape theme is one that’s sufficiently limiting to lend an organising principle to the diversity on display, but broad enough to allow for a range of terrains. In keeping with the gallery’s canal-side setting, the territories mapped straddle both the urban and the bucolic, the exterior and the interior.

Perhaps inevitably, while individual styles diverge, there is some repetition of approach; the melancholy picturesque of Manchester after the rain is in some danger of becoming the default setting for delineating the city.

Georgia Noble’s Wild Swimming is one of those paintings that looks outside the city for its inspiration. Immediately arresting the eye with its bold expanses of colour, reminding the viewer both of autumn’s chlorophyll rust and the rich decay of copper and its blues, it suggests nature in the ceaseless motion that belies its apparent stillness, its vibrancy suffused with the rapturous breath of cycles in which humanity is only an afterthought.

On a smaller scale, and with the understatement of monochrome, Emma Jackson’s delicately elegant giclee prints attempt to pin the enormity of the natural world down, locating in the power of its rhythms something of the more refined patterns of Aubrey Beardsley or 19th century Japanese prints. If Noble’s work submits to the rawness of nature, Jackson’s tends to tame, bringing it down to size.

This unease at the threshold between the taming effects of urbanisation and the imperviousness of the world which pre-existed the spark of human consciousness is one that imbues Jen Orpin’s near-photographic oils with their disquieting fascination. Where the streetlights begin to peter out, where the paved gives way to the moors, these postcard-sized paintings suggest that imagination can no longer close its doors to the uncanny. Oprin stages scenes in which the intrusion of the kind of encounters which fill the pages of the Fortean Times each month seem no more than a skipped heartbeat or a held breath away.

Retreating from the unease of Orpin’s creeping dusks, Steve Brown’s day-lit Laneside Cow Parsley warms chilled spines with the less complicated emotions of an undreaded sunny day. In its stylised form, and the near-translucency of its palette, it feels like a contemporary echo of a stained glass window by Polish genius Stanislaw Wyspiański.

All things considered, the strength in depth of Beyond Landscapes is more than enough to suggest that, from its bedsits to its ateliers, Greater Manchester bristles with artistic visions every bit as idiosyncratic as the likes of L.S. Lowry or Harold Riley; creators, moreover, with an eye on the now, rather than the then. Just as to the point, in their own eye for what’s going on, it’s hard not to indulge the observation that its curators are events organisers who are worth cottoning on to.

By Desmond Bullen


Beyond Landscapes is at Saul Hay Gallery until August 28, 2022. For more information, click here.