Dozens of peculiar branches stand upright to greet you entering The First Cut exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery which exhibits 30 international artists all ingeniously working with the humble medium of paper. Colourful cobwebs of earthy greens and browns jaunt out from the stems with felt like texture and considerable size. Hanging down from the ceiling each unique tree slowly rotates creating a forest of barely there shapes, forming constantly moving patterns of oversized leaves swaying without a breeze. The large span imitates sizes seen in exotic rain forests but the colours are clearly from the emergence of autumn in Manchester, a marriage of familiar and foreign.
Nature is a recurring theme at the exhibition, perhaps paper naturally lends itself to the familiar forms of foliage but that shouldn’t mean artists need to keep returning to roses. I enjoyed the alternatives to the usual vintage books cut up into quaint fantasies and fairy tales of shadow puppetry tradition. Instead what really interested me was the paper pieces with heavy statements lurking beneath the surface.
At first glance Tom Gallant’s contribution is a perfectly lovely investigation into the arts and crafts movement with emphasis on Morris inspired wallpaper and feathery birds. Another look, a look with your head pressed against the glass, you’ll begin to spot a hint of smoky glamour girl eyes or red glossy lips and appearing from the birds unsuspecting wing a mans hairy arm is fondling a woman’s breast or perhaps bum, it’s hard to tell. The provocative piece is deceptive and created by the scantily clad bodies of pornography being collaged digitally then textured by cutting to masquerade its real identity. Censorship immediately comes to mind with the revelation of sexual acts hidden behind the decorative facade, the erotic secrets of the 19th Century hidden behind a decorative front.
Four framed images and text again by Gallant from a shady gentleman’s magazine cut out revealing nothing just the silhouettes of where bodies would be and empty shapes where the words were again examine censorship, or lack of censorship of pornography with it’s minimal appearance. Another politically motivated piece is by Justine Smith is a grenade and gun made from foreign notes, a striking and bold image. Surely the message is simple ‘What cost is War?’ the millions of pounds rather than pounds of flesh lost to war yet the motivation of the deaths are as clear as the dollars formed around the ring pull and trigger. It is simple and effective with the seemingly lightweight objects heavy with the questioning of global greed, conflict and corruption.
Several stand out amongst the exhibition where many works remain paper thin in substance as well as form. Craftsmanship, patience and skill are in abundance but when it comes down to innovation of ideas and discussing politics through paper, a few really are a cut above.