Manchester Contemporary 2014 presented a range of works, in this, its fifth year, from invited commercial galleries and artist-led spaces in England and Scotland. With its manageable scale, free entry and emphasis on galleries located outside of the capital, this fair was a more appealing prospect than many.
There were some intricate paper-based pieces in stands by Paper Gallery in Manchester and at Platform A in Middlesbrough. Carroll / Fletcher, London showed a film by Wood and Harrison with the duo’s trademark brand of humour: currents of air from two opposing desktop fans held aloft a single sheet of A4 paper, making it dance and sway on its edge, suspended and prevented from falling. Bill Drummond was the focus of Eastside Projects’ stand, as you might expect if you have visited the gallery in Birmingham over the summer. Drummond made paintings during the fair, and when I visited, he had just interviewed an interviewer. She was going to publish this in the Manchester Evening News.
At London-based Maria Stenfors’ stand, Dean Hughes’ sculptural pieces constructed from wood, hand-dyed calico and thread had a precisely drawn quality. Tiny stitches traced out ‘u’ or ‘n’ shaped marks on the surface of the fabric, or straight lines that kissed the edge of the material frame. Alluding to semaphore and other linguistic codes, Hughes presented a highly idiosyncratic alphabet impossible to decipher. The fabric supports for these stitched marks were simple shapes draped over wooden frames, almost like a clothes horse for miniature garments. Like the stitched marks, these shapes seemed to refer to images and objects without ever quite representing them. His forms were ambiguous, unsettling, subtle and highly deliberate.
Nearby, a stand from domobaal, London, showed artists including Lee Edwards. ‘Pile’ and ‘Entangled’ were two exquisitely detailed pencil drawings of woollen objects as strange lumpen jumbles. These works were offset by a number of miniature paintings by Edwards made on to sections of wood and on to the rounded bellies of conkers. Faces grew from the grain of wood, blonde hair flowed from its patterned surfaces.
A collaboration between Grand Union in Birmingham and Worcester’s Division of Labour proved to be the most successful and engaging stand at the fair, precisely because it explored this specific context for the display of art, rather than trying to ignore it as many galleries did. ‘Booth’ by Luke McCreadie was a complex installation that drew together diverse aspects of McCreadie’s professional experiences, from weekend car-booting to installing sculptures for Phyllida Barlow. His installation included ‘Brutalist Bunting,’ in a wry parody of the revival in homemade crafts and an upsurge in the popularity of Brutalist architecture as it comes under increasing threat, particularly in Birmingham. He included casually arranged floor-based sculptures whose forms were taken from the punctuation marks of sculpture books, and a table and chairs which showed the three-dimensional outline of the artist’s thumb along several edges of the wood, as when a child draws around their own hand. Seated on these chairs were bizarre ceramic portraits of the directors of Grand Union and Division of Labour, playful nods made to their role and significance to an artist’s commercial career by bringing these portraits into the display itself.
While there were a broad range of media and approaches on display, there did appear to be a number of connecting threads between gallery stands. Those that piqued my interest most were works which interrogated the structures of language systems and coded communication mechanisms, and those which demonstrated an economy of line and form, Hughes and McCreadie in particular. Some humour and a miniature scale, always useful when displaying at art fairs, were employed by a number of galleries, and there was a focus on works made on or using paper. On the whole, the best presentations were those which were able to allocate plenty of space to each artist, allowing the formation of a cohesive narrative, rather than those which crammed together works by too many individuals. There were pieces I found confusing, others that were dry or too extroverted, but there were some real gems at Manchester Contemporary too.
On view 26-28 September 2014
Commissioned and published by Turning Point West Midlands, 28 October 2014