‘Transformations’ at Salford Art Gallery
Written by Josh Molyneux
Photography by Victoria Smith
‘Transformations’ is a collection of work by 10 different artists who have graduated from the Complete Print Maker course at the Hot Bed Press print studios in Salford. As work from artists studying in Salford and shown in Salford Art Gallery the work naturally takes Salford as it’s subject matter, with the artists each given a loose brief of exploring how the landscape ‘transformed’ through time. Happily, this brief is more taken as starting point from which each artist has developed their own thread rather than a delineation, with work either staying linked to the original concept in a readily accessible way or spinning out into something else.
Alongside the city of Salford, the medium of print itself is a subject of the exhibition, which showcases techniques and ways of manipulating them to generate qualities not possible in other materials. As a testimony to the Hot Bed Press course the work is impressive: each of the artists show a distinct personal style and control over their practise. Presumably the comprehensive content also has facilitated the artists in this show to form such divergent work, incorporating landscapes, abstracted geometric patterns and somewhere in between.
Naturally given Salford’s past, the works which constitute landscapes often take mill chimneys and the like as their subject. The quality of print lends itself to these works where the mechanical element of the printing process gives a somewhat machined quality to the outcome, echoing the industrial activity that has largely informed the city’s identity. For instance, the sometimes blockish architecture of Salford’s urban landscape is accentuated by the colour layers of Helen Lacey’s work and the shades of Kate Downes’ (the latter of which in a style uncannily similar to Salford-art-godfather L.S. Lowry, deepening the connection to the city). Even where the print editions are numbered contributes to the tone through making the notion of reproduction explicit, the manufacture of Salford factories in miniature. The black and white of Downes and some of Jayne Pellington’s work gives the works a smokey, sooty quality which again captures reverberations of the smog that would have hung in the atmosphere of industrial Salford in their scenes of its contemporary counterpart.
Outside of landscapes, other works have a more lateral relationship to the brief. Most distinctly abstract of these is that of Leslie Johnson, whose work consists entirely of geometrical patterns with a focus on shape, colour and textures rather than depicting any part of Salford. The works of Paulette Bansal similarly primarily employ these formal elements but with a splash of Salford more recognisable in them. The works of of Alison Scott and Dawn Prescott show scenes from the area with a collage-like composition. As a grouping these artists are notable for how the show printmaking’s position as a medium skirting the borders of art and design. Johnson’s practise as a textiles artist is readily characterisable in this bracket for its obvious links to textile print design. Bansal’s pieces with their style akin to layout design or illustration, along with Scott and Schilizzi’s almost cut-and-paste composition appear to draw influence from graphic design used in media publication, true to the name of the Hot Bed Press. The outlier to this grouping is the work of Yvonne Walters, which shares the use of abstracted shapes and focus on texture with that of Bansal and Johnson but with less order, as though betraying Walters’ usual subject matter of organic rural landscapes.
Further displaying the difference in approach between the artists, the works of Alison Sandford and Bridgitt Schilizzi hone in on specific stories within Salford which epitomise the social and material change that has taken place in the area. Sandford’s work takes inspiration from research into the history of Salford park, whose winding backstory of dilapidation and renovation mirrors of Salford more widely. Schilizzi’s prints depicts swimmers in the relatively newly established public outdoor swimming area of Salford Quays, again taking this one story of regeneration as emblematic for the general change in the area.
Interestingly, the term regeneration is quite consistent throughout the artists’ statements. While contemporary debates about the changing characters of urban areas seem dominated by negative ideas of gentrification, it is striking how generally positive (or at least neutral) the work from this collection of artists is. The change brought about by the media industry around the docklands and the development of the university are given as causes for celebration rather than the demise of a previous culture. The only real dissenting voice is that of Scott who is frank about her view of the environment as “unsympathetic”, with figures in her works with vulnerabilities hinting at a community not unfamiliar with hardship, then and now.
It is certainly interesting how artists working in print can take the same starting point and produce such disparate outcomes. The potential drawback of this is that with all the different tones of the work, ‘Transformations’ does not have one message that each artist and work contributes to, but rather many voices jostling within one space. In another setting this may not matter, but it is exaggerated by the setting in Salford Art Gallery where the exhibition inhabits only part of one room, itself within rooms of artefacts so that the works can merge into the rest of the museum collection and their impact becomes lost. With the art spaces adapted from industrial sites in Salford currently active such as Caustic Coastal, Islington Mill or Hot Bed Press itself, I wonder whether this show being hosted in the context of Salford proper would give it more of a cohesive sense of the city.
In spite of this, ‘Transformations’ is successful as a collection showcasing different techniques from throughout the print spectrum and perspective on contemporary Salford, that will be of intrigue to anyone with an interest in either.
‘Transformations’ is on at Salford Art Gallery from 11th May – 10th September.
Our guest blogger Josh Molyneux is a designer/artist based in Manchester, working primarily on jewellery that draws on his background in philosophy. View his work or get in touch via Instagram @josh_mol_design.
Our guest photographer is Victoria Smith, a cross disciplinary artist from East Yorkshire studying in Manchester. You can view her portfolio or contact her through @victoriasmithphotos or www.victoriasmithphotos.co.uk.