If Stockport is the new Berlin (Luke Una), then Marple has to be its Neukölln. This buzzing community south-east of Manchester is stuffed with lush independent shops and cafés, cool restaurants and apparently it’s also the go-to place if you’re looking for a new hairstyle…Are there really twenty-five Hairdressers in Marple?
And if the above isn’t quite enough to convince you to spend some time in SK6, then how about a visit to a fabulous Art Space, to view (and lose yourself) in the immersive and incredible work of an actual Rock Star?
Mag North headed off recently to Mura Ma, which is an artist-led independent gallery on Stockport Road – to do just that – and we were blown-away by both the space and the people.
The creation of painter Nancy Collantine, it does feel like they’re doing something different at Mura Ma. Their website declares the gallery is: ‘shaped from the desire to hold space for artists to present their work, Mura Ma is a place for artists to show and create meaningful context and connections and to build an engaged audience of supporters and collectors.’ And as we meet Nancy and Emma Richardson on the eve of Emma’s first Solo Exhibition in the North, there is undoubtedly an overwhelming sense of ‘the co-operative’, together with an accessibility and welcome that isn’t uniformly present in all art spaces.
The exhibition titled ‘Hang Each Night In Rapture’ is the latest show from Wimbledon School of Art Fine Art graduate Emma Richardson. We need to reference the fact at the outset, that the London based painter is also a founding member of rock band ‘Band of Skulls’ – and on a Wednesday evening in Marple, she is the epitome of Rock Star cool: casually drinking from a bottle of beer, surrounded by her awe-inspiring canvases, but looking like she might pick up her bass guitar and jump on stage in-front of adoring fans at any moment. (Don't get side-tracked. We’re here to talk about her painting).
So, how did the exhibition come about?
Emma: “I met Nancy through TURPS Art School – during lockdown – we were putting on a group exhibition and we got on well.”
The pair instantly struck up a friendship and have subsequently spent lots of time chatting online and have been visiting numerous UK exhibitions together.
Mura Ma opened in January and it was a must-do for Nancy to ask Emma to be one of the first artists to stage a solo exhibition.
Nancy: “I wanted to invite people in that I have got to know, know their studio practice – and love their work. In London there’s a big passion for painting – and its very contemporary – whereas in the North I feel that painting is sometimes side-lined. Manchester is very focussed and excels at conceptual and performance art – but there’s a need to fly the flag for painting.
“Liverpool’s brilliant. I’ve met Josie actually from Refractive Pool – a group of painters in Liverpool. They’re really well organised. In Liverpool, painting is celebrated. This group have recently had an exhibition in the Walker.”
Emma: “She asked me if I’d like to have a solo show – and of course I agreed, because I love the space and it felt right to show my work here – and Nancy has been very supportive. It’s great to show north of Southampton and London, which I haven’t before. I’ve shown my work in Barcelona and Madrid but not in the North.”
Is this a typical exhibition for you – in numbers of paintings?
Emma: “This is pretty typical of what I’ve been showing. The first solo show in Barcelona was at the Yoko Gallery and the owner invited me out from seeing my work through TURPS online. I jumped at the chance. I did all the work in my studio in Southampton and then shipped it all out – and I went out for 2 weeks and we hung the show and I was there for the private view. It was amazing being out there and meeting people and seeing how they responded to the work.
“My work deals quite a lot with female sexuality and desire – and hearing women in another country talking and responding to the work was incredible.
“It went really well, so he invited me back the following year – and instead of shipping the work out he invited me to do a residency in the gallery space, so I was there for 2 months over the summer and made all the work in the gallery space – it bounced off the city through the food and the culture and the people and it came out through the work in a beautiful way in the end. The paintings were so different – they were colourful and light – and it had a really big effect, so that was a real experience. That was in 2021.”
Is there a beginning, middle and an end to this exhibition?
“I think the whole body of work I made for this exhibition, so I had in mind this space – and I wanted to do something that worked collectively together and bounced off each other.”
Three medium pieces formed the initial works, before Emma moved on to a large canvas and then alternated between works.
Emma: “There is a kind of journey throughout. Two of the charcoal pieces were from last year and I did a new one for the show to make a triptych that would work in that space." (A smaller, intimate room within the main gallery.)
“I love [Charcoal - the medium used] it’s a real freeing process, either before starting a body of work or at the end, it’s like summing up things or beginning things. Opening up and trying things out – or a resolution and final push, its great to show drawings – I don’t always show drawings alongside my paintings. It’s a bit of a first.”
When you were working on these pieces, where were you in yourself? What were you trying to communicate – or does it not work like that?
“It’s almost like – I do it and step back and say…ahh okay…maybe that’s what it was about. But it’s trying to show this duality in human beings. We have this constant wrestling and also along with that there is the spirit of ourselves – but also the spirit of our times. We’re living in quite tumultuous times at the moment and its hard for us to grapple and understand that – so it’s these existential questions of who are we? What’s happening? Why are we here? And also this day-to-day levelling thing of what’s happening in the world.”
Are they questions you’re asking yourself as your painting?
“No, no. I just paint. I think about this stuff around every day. Before and after – but when I’m painting, it’s a decision making process. It's being able to trust your instincts and know what to do next, like how to balance it – how to use the weight. What colour suggests a certain feeling or emotion. It tells me what to do. I come in in the morning and sit with it and it kind of shouts out what’s wrong with it – or what needs something and then you make a few marks that end up changing the whole painting.
“It's like wrestling with a material physical subject and then somehow when you step away and you think it’s done and you have a moment with it – it’s something…it came through you. It’s very much out of your control, but I love that because it’s fascinating to me to think: ‘what is in my subconscious to make me do this?’ It’s the ferocity and the tenderness – and I love that slightly scary aspect that we all have inside us – but also there is love. It’s a balancing act. It’s trying to do that in paint.”
Nancy: “And also you’re painting within a framework of art history. And everything you’ve been looking at – your visual archive – the stuff you’ve been reading about, all goes in.”
Emma: “I look at a lot of Old Masters and historical painters. I’m a big fan of Turner and Reubens and Bosch and I saw the Garden of Earthly Delights in the Prado – and it blew my mind. These things go in and they stay. It’s how different artists have tried to translate and get across that human experience and I’m trying to do that from my perspective at this point in time.
Nancy: “The fascination is with painters: for painting its telling, expressing something that you can’t say in words. Painting is addictive. You can really communicate stuff on a different level.”
Emma: “When the work is non-representational I think it holds a deeper weight, because people can project their own feelings on to it – and it brings something out which is personal to the viewer.
“I’ve worked figuratively before – and it just hasn’t got the same magic. I love figurative work, but for me I feel I can get across more of an emotion – because it’s that inner bodily experience. It’s like an inner psychological landscape that comes out. It’s a joy to try and express it all, but it’s also a struggle. It’s not always enjoyable.
“Personally, I feel it. [The completion of a painting] It comes to a natural conclusion – it starts to hang well together. One brush mark can complete it and that’s the most beautiful moment.
“The human eye will always try and figure out if something makes sense by making its own call. It’s fascinating.”
I was rather nervous about coming along tonight, because as a middle-age bloke, I felt I was intruding and that this artwork isn’t intended to speak to me.
Emma: “I don’t know about that.”
I felt: ‘How am I going to write about this and not miss what is obvious to the artist?’ What are you articulating that perhaps someone like me wouldn’t get?
Emma: “I think these works touch on the human experience which we all have, it doesn’t matter the gender. I think it’s coming from me because I’m a woman and I’m painting it, but it’s meant for everybody. This isn’t solely for women to look at and feel something. I’m very interested in the human need for convention. The human need for ecstatic experience – and to lose themselves.
“I read this brilliant book by Jules Evans called the Art Of Losing Control. He’s a modern day philosopher and he wrote this book about how we need to escape the everyday – and the various ways we do this through religion and spirituality and music and sex and drugs. Excuses for people to get together and share some kind of electricity and connection. And that is as much to do with the work as female desire and the female experience. It’s on the same level for me.
“You can look at the work and take away – there must be things that when you look at the work you see and it triggers and hopefully anyone who comes and takes a bit of time in front of the paintings – they’re going to speak differently to everybody. Whatever you feel is valid.
Nancy: “I think when you’re painting – you want to share. You don’t want to exclude and there is a fear now for a lot of blokes that as women are expressing themselves more: ‘Oh I don’t belong in that space’ – but actually I think any work can benefit men. It’s a way of opening up – and there can be stuff to learn.”
Emma: “I like how it opens people up to talking about what they see in the work and they’re experiences in life – and maybe it’ll instigate discussions – I’m hoping the work has an effect on people in an emotional way.
“This is all about my personal expressions and feelings and ideas I have about art history and things that interest me – but it’s all about human beings and how we connect and interact with each other. Openness and conversation. Dialogue is key. We should take that forward.
“If you’re safe and you’re comfortable – I’d never make good work in that frame of mind – it was a big shift [leaving the band and other lifestyle changes] and now I have to make this work and I’m doing what I love. It’s an incredible feeling to be able to have a solo show in this space and to show all this work that is quite personal, but hopefully people will see it and bring their own stories to it.
We talk about two small pieces in the collection that for me are particularly striking:
“I wanted to see how minimal and light I could go, just with gesture and colour – what effect I could make happen. I love Prussian Blue and I love Ultramarine Violet. It was seeing what could come out of a slightly reduced colour pallet – almost like putting boundaries on yourself.
“Yet again it was very much about plotting out composition and seeing where it leads. Having the dynamic and movement and energy in it. It feels kind of Turner influenced a little bit. Stormy seas again – that keep recurring in my work.
[In the top left of the upper canvas] “I don’t know if it’s a figure, but it’s a sort of entity coming in and there was a female figure that appeared to me.”
So you interpret your own work differently – dependent on how you’re feeling?
Can we talk about your charcoals?
Emma: “I love working on a large scale. It can be free and easy and quick . These pieces take a day or two – to work it all out – sleep on it – then come in and know if it’s working.
“I’m drawing with the eraser as well – using that as a tool – that’s really exciting.
“Two of the three were done last year and I felt that they worked so well with the rest of the works in the show, so after I finished all the paintings I did the final one.
“They’re inspired by Rubens Great Last Judgement. There’s a weight. But heavenly.”
The final drawing is called ‘Game of Risk’. Can you tell us why?
Emma: “Human relations – and connecting. Sometimes it’s a risk connecting – to give your complete self to somebody. But you don’t gain unless you risk.
“Rubens Fall Of The Damned is my favourite painting and it's always in my mind when I’m making work. All of his paintings that deal with the descent or ascent . It’s always quite dramatic.”
Nancy: “When I walked into Emma’s studio for the first time I thought ‘Wow’ – it was an assault on the senses. Your work is alive!”
While I can’t profess to understand obviously what Emma is feeling as she is working – I understand the enormity of the emotion that’s gone into each piece. There is such a depth of expression present in a world that’s maybe too superficial.
Emma: “I studied art. That was my dream. I met a bunch of guys while we were at college. I got into Wimbledon School of Art and did my degree, but then after I left, the band took off quite quickly, so you have to just jump at these chances. You can’t say no.
“I loved being in the band. Writing our own songs. The painting got lost a little because of the touring. You’re focussed on other creative acts. But my painting appears on the band art work. I got to travel the world, meet a lot of people and experience a lot of things – and more importantly, the experiences I’ve had as a musician, playing live music to a large amount of people – there’s such an animal energy and feedback that happens. There’s nothing like it. So to be able to experience that rush of adrenaline and stimulation from the lifestyle – all of that’s fed into me and my work. It’s a response.
“People wanting to lose themselves, that transcendence – feel part of a bigger thing is coming in through my work.
“I loved being in the band and collaborating. The writing, the people in the band are brilliant. It was a moment in time for me but it felt like I had to leave then – and make this horrible decision to leave something that I also love, to go and do this [paint]. It was difficult to do.”
Nancy: “She is really amazing. It’s amazing that she’s trusted to bring her work here, to bring all your work up north and show it to a different audience…”
Emma: “I trust you and I know you’re doing amazing things with this space – and I want as many people to see my work as possible. I want to get it in front of everybody. If it feels right – I tend to go with it, because you never know where it’s going to lead – and who you’re going to meet.”
Nancy: “It’s a fact that everything you do, feeds into everything else.”
And how does it work Emma? Has this period ended? Are you already thinking about your next work?
Emma: “It will be closure for me when I leave this gallery space – even though the show continues.
“With two shows coming up in Margate – and hopefully a solo show in London towards the end of the year. Making for these is now at the forefront…Very exciting times ahead. Watch this space.
“Working with Nancy – she has brought a whole other idea to the table and it really works – it’s all about collaboration and being open to ideas.”
Mura Ma is undoubtedly bringing a new ethos to the concept of ‘exhibition’ and developing artists – and it has to be championed. With this latest show bringing works inspired by the biblical, by human emotion – and by many of the greatest painters both alive and dead, the opportunity to immerse yourself in Emma Richardson’s work is not to be missed.
Hang Each Night In Rapture runs at Mura Ma until 15 July.