On a temporarily blockaded King Street West in Salford, just a mere stride across the river near Blackfriars, is the the red brick building that houses Ocean’s Apart’s gallery and artists’ studios.
OA Studios appears humble and resolute amid the ascending towers that surround it. The area is in transition, as though it’s in-between time periods, and there could be no better setting for a new exhibition. Stand Close and Breathe Me In presents 22 paintings, each no bigger than 30cm on the longest side and created by a different artist. The artwork has been brought together by artist and curator Enzo Marra in association with Contemporary British Painting.
But were these paintings collated because of their stature? Well, it’s up to the viewer to work out what holds this exhibition together. Much like walking into a party and not knowing who anyone is, it’s a daunting experience. These paintings are looking at you and waiting. Blinking, even.
Each painting is alive with possibility: a small island, a postcard from a far-off place, messages scratched onto a cubicle door, a faded photo, a drawn-out drunken explanation, a patchwork of studio ephemera and scribbled notes. It’s a visually intriguing display and difficult to put into words. These are painted intimacies, hints and allegations, windows into dreams. It’s truly mesmerising, and each piece is different. No single thought seems to exist between them. Well, maybe there is one, which says ‘look, love. This is what painting can be’.
In Rosalind Faram’s Yellow Skirt, an almost famous, fashion-forward figure is styling it out on a brightly coloured backdrop, hands on hips, with the blank expression of influencer confidence. A neo-geo look, the position of the arms matches the triangles of the top and a further triangle appears in the split of the yellow skirt. Big boots with a shiny toe, black hair parted in the middle.
Meanwhile, a dog wanders across the street towards us in the foreground of Dan Samuel Thomas’s loosely painted scene, Cardiff in Lockdown. Grey and yellow paint is loosely laid, and the white of the paper shows through. There’s also a red under-staining where the road and pavement meet. Four figures stand in front of a building and we can see their pink hands are animated, it’s possible that one might even be playing a musical instrument. We make the leap. But then there’s the stain, the terrible stain.
Could these paintings ever be big? Well, no. After all, their size is part of their making. Besides, would you even want to change them? There’s a definite assuredness in exactly what they are.
One exception might be Kena Brown’s tiny 15 x 13cm abstract painting, which feels like the missing piece of a larger piece of work. There’s the suggestion of a bright turquoise sea and the work leaves me wondering if this image might be a study for a bigger work. Perhaps a playful material suggestion or just a note to self. If this was a huge painting, there would be no doubt. So, do we ask whether this is enough simply because of its small size? It appears that size still matters then, outside this room.
But we are still here, inside this small place filled with tiny paintings, and what goes on out there, back in a world full of big paintings, doesn’t matter. This is the world of the small. It’s intimate and enchanting, yet the content feels epic.
In Dylan Williams’s Self Portrait with Grandfather (a double portrait depicting tin-hatted figures), it feels vaguely familiar, like an old photograph. Painted in grey, one figure carries an arrow and the other brandishes a stick. Red paint daubs the sky behind them and pools in the lower third. Eyes right, serious black and intent. Eyes left, white and fearful.
In Ruth Calland’s Mammy Two Shoes, the figure is cropped from the top of the painting and, not only that, sliced by a thick black line that that bleeds into her neck. But what is Medusa without her head? Calland returns Medusa’s snakes to her body with loose painterly abandon. It’s evident that this artist loves to paint.
There’s an expression of feeling in paint. We can explore what paint can do within the four walls of a flat surface and it often tugs at our emotional and psychological strings simply by a mere suggestion. This is what makes it a will-o’-the-wisp medium.
And so it doesn’t faze us to see slivers of oceanic watermelon slices in Portrait Sea by Julian Brown, which appear to float before our eyes. Two pink blobs, the act of application apparent, interrupts the space. Behind all this is a thin luminous green-grey wash which deepens the feeling of immersion. But we feel safe on these arcs of the ocean and can cope with the mild threat of the blobs. It’s not an unwelcome feeling.
In contrast, it would appear we are on terra firma with Treasure Island by Enzo Marra. The painting holds all the trademarks of a secret treasure map, including palm trees, a small mountain range, a trail around the island and an X. When viewed close up, black and white, shiny enamel paint is roughly applied. But if you pull back, it gives way to a snoring pirate face.
The tour is concluded by a lovely little postcard for the kids. No Haircut by Grant Watson makes me think of all those schools that give children a hard time about how they wear their hair. Here, faces and lots of fabulous hairstyles are drawn into purple and blue paint, which makes this small picture come alive with the spirit of hair. It’s a little statement in a big, offensive world. On second thought, this painting should be blown up in size and turned into a billboard.
Getting to know these paintings, and the time I spent thinking about them afterwards, makes them incredibly powerful. Undeniably awkward, risky and perilously close to dissolving inwardly, these pictures come together beautifully as a community of paintings that unselfconsciously share a derision of flawlessness in favour of an undone world.
Main image: No Haircut by Grant Wilson.
Stand Close and Breathe Me In, Oceans Apart is on at OA Studios in Manchester until July 25, 2021. The exhibition is curated by Enzo Marra, in conjunction with Contemporary British Painting. The gallery can be accessed by appointment only. For more information, click here.