Ever since the UK government imposed a nationwide lockdown on 23 March, I’ve been using the time to do more painting, something which I’ve only practised very intermittently since 2004. It’s interesting to me that the period of lockdown (now coming up to 14 weeks) has resulted in a surge of creativity – I’ve completed 11 paintings in this time (more than I’ve done over the last four years). Perhaps having my family at home during the day has, at last, provided a sense of normality to what is my unusual working life – mostly solitary, home-based research and writing. Perhaps it was a necessary way of structuring my time – providing variety when much of everything else was being stripped back. Whatever the reason, in this difficult time, I’ve found focus and meaning through art-making and it’s something I’d like to build more strongly into my everyday life once this crisis has passed. Here’s five pieces that I enjoyed making the most.
I’ve lived in Greater Manchester for nearly 10 years and it’s the first city I’ve lived in that I’ve truly grown to love. I’ve already written about the city’s industrial ruins in The Dead City and gathered together, with fellow writer Sarah Butler, a diverse range of stories about its unheralded places and pasts in Manchester: Something Rich & Strange. I’m fascinated by the textures of the city’s buildings – their overwhelming ruddiness (the ever present brick); but also by the historical undertow that pulls on everything in the city. This painting – multiple replicas of Brownsfield Mill in Ancoats – references French traveler Alexis de Tocqueville’s remark about Manchester in 1835, a time when the city was ‘Cottonopolis’, the global centre of cotton textile production. De Tocqueville said that ‘from this filthy sewer, flows pure gold’. This uncomfortably melding of darkness and light, and corruption and beauty, is perhaps what most entices me about the city I call home. Despite its recent high-profile regeneration, Manchester remains intractably bound up with this powerful contradictory image from the past.
In the early weeks of lockdown, my spatial horizons became very narrow: mostly daily walks or cycle-rides to places I already thought I knew well. During this time, I must have passed the gargantuan railway viaduct that straddles the Mersey Valley in Stockport dozens of times. This structure, built in 1840, always appears in two guises: at once both graceful and also brutal. It always seems out of place, yet also absolutely rooted in everyday experience. Its geometries are simple – repeating round arches on massive brick pillars dressed with stone – but these geometries shift and warp when seen from different viewpoints. In this painting, I imagined the Stockport viaduct stacked on top of itself many times; the passing trains crisscrossing the sky at different angles. In many ways, this improbable image reflects the reality of how urban infrastructure works. In Stockport, rivers occupy the lowest level, mostly still where they were before the town was developed. Industry brought roads – bridges spanning the rivers below – and later railways, their bridges and viaducts spanning the space above the roads. Thus, multiple layers developed – a skyward movement that now extends much further upwards to the flight paths of aircraft coming and going from Manchester’s airport (although almost erased during the early period of lockdown).
After a few weeks of this focus on my immediate surroundings, I wanted to try and broaden my outlook. My paintings became more experimental – ways of trying out new techniques and forms. I’d also become fascinated with using glass gems and sequins. Generally, my paintings are composed of many layers of materials: first, a wash of ink or acrylic; second, chalk squares or circles; third, watercolour which fixes the chalk. Next comes gouache – metallic paints that I enjoy for their unique sheens. Gems provided the final layer – a top surface that shimmers as different kinds of light are reflected off or refracted though the little pieces of glass. The three paintings shown here illustrate how I’ve been experimenting with more abstract forms in this layering of materials. Medusa is named after the jellyfish that go by this name – it’s a spiralling form that glistens in all the colours of the rainbow, as some marine creatures do in the pitch-black of the deep sea.
The next painting, Cloudburst, came as a response to the record-breaking spell of dry weather we had during the first two months of the lockdown. In some ways, that unbroken sunshine was a great mercy but it was also part and parcel of the climate crisis that continues to unfold despite the enforced stillness imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic (and, seemingly, the first ever global reduction in carbon emissions). On every raindrop in this painting is fixed an iridescent gem. In a certain light, these flicker and pulsate with a hypnotic beauty.
The final painting – Singularity – develops the spiralling forms seen in Medusa and the iridescence of Cloudburst. The double spiral is made up of hundreds of different-sized dots. I managed to source 12 sizes of iridescent gems to match these and painstakingly glued them to the dots – from the smallest (0.2mm) to the largest (8mm). Although the forms are abstract, the idea was to give a sense of the way in which light might disappear into a Black Hole – the singularity that provided the title for the painting. But I also found out that the word ‘singularity’ can mean something different, namely an imagined point in the future when the world spirals out of control as technology develops its own sentient intelligence. This meaning felt very apt for our own times, as a seemingly alien intelligence really has shaken human life to its very core.