Looking at contemporary art is very often to subject oneself to a riddle. With a thoughtful or bemused expression, we may fumble inwardly for understanding: grasping the artist’s concept is often key to appreciating the piece. Happily, Caroline Johnson’s exhibition of paintings, drawings and collages – There’s a rainbow in the road at Salford Museum and Art Gallery – which celebrates the urban landscapes of Manchester and Salford ought not to trouble the modern art sceptic, for it is at heart a quiet triumph of traditional sketching and drawing, skills which this artist possesses in spades.

Caroline began drawing at the age of five, starting auspiciously with the fluff under her bed and washing on the line, both of which can be seen here in one of the several sketchbooks on display. After attending art school in Preston, Falmouth and London, she spent 20 years painting in picturesque Brittany. Now based in the North West of England, Caroline is the official Urban Sketcher for Manchester and has made numerous sketches of the city and neighbouring Salford over the past four years. This exhibition is a collection of paintings, drawings and collages descending from her prolific field recordings.

All of the exhibits are highly observant executions infused with an impressionistic sensibility that preserves the identity of the initial sketch in the line, often with just one or two colours predominating. That deep, red-orange, for example, so characteristic of the brickwork of Victorian and Edwardian Manchester and Salford, is ubiquitous, as in the The Black Lion, Salford and The Old Police Station. In contrast, cars and pavements are often left blank, allowing the eye to concentrate on the subject; though this ‘freezing-out’ technique perversely increases the interest of the former, which is perhaps the point.

he Black Lion, Salford - Caroline JohnsonThough distinctly urban in subject, there is nevertheless something Constable-esque about the humility and movement present in Caroline’s art; Constable’s stumps and leaves replaced with iron railings and bricks, which seem to have a life of their own. No subject, it seems, is too mundane for Caroline Johnson to tackle, as she attempts to draw beauty out of backstreets, factories, tax offices, even dredgers in Salford Docks – and succeeds. “There’s a rainbow in the road” (a line from Salford poet John Cooper Clarke’s Beasley Street) seems an apt title for the exhibition, given the artist’s desire to share beauty found in the unlikeliest of places. In particular, I noted the painting Victoria Bridge, Beatles Poster, the tones of which so effectively radiate the Manchester chill she refers to, and which must have frozen her fingers on the day it was sketched.

There are interior scenes, too, such as people sitting on a tram and a very colourful depiction of the Royal Exchange Theatre. There’s also a set of drawings made at Blueprint Studios in Salford, recording home of the band Elbow, where the artist spent one week sketching the band’s environment and musical paraphernalia, including guitars and flight cases. A favourite of mine here was a drawing made directly onto cardboard in the absence of suitably-sized drawing paper: that’s creativity for you! Elbow - Caroline Johnson

All in all, this is a charming exhibition which draws attention to the inspiring urban heritage of Manchester and Salford in an intimate and accessible way, and is well worth a visit by young and old alike.

Review by Matthew Graham 


What: There’s a rainbow in the road: Caroline Johnson

Where: Salford Museum and Art Gallery

When: Saturday March 23, 2013 – Sunday 7 July 7, 2013

More info: www.salfordcommunityleisure.co.uk/culture/salford-museum-and-art-gallery/exhibitions/future-exhibitions; 0161 778 0800