In normal times I would have called in to see Liam Spencer’s paintings at Contemporary Six.
Or – which is even more enjoyable for me – called in to see him at his Rossendale studio to look at the work in progress. Plus have a brew and a chat of course.
For the exhibition which should have been taking place at Contemporary Six I was even more intrigued than usual. Because Liam is always associated with vibrant colour in a typically Manc landscape setting.
But this show (now lockdown online) is called ‘In Bloom’ and for a start that doesn’t sound very gritty, Northern or Liam. But then I have seen paintings of flowers around his studio and so for me perhaps not as much of a surprise as for others.
“Alex Rueben (of Contemporary Six) triggered the idea. He suggested showing paintings from observation, particularly flowers. He actually suggested ‘unfurling the flower in contemporary painting.’ A great phrase.
“Alex asked me and six other artists to create work on the theme. Historically the flower-vase still life was immortalised in Western art history with the Dutch painters of the 17th Century, but it’s still a much painted still life subject, just not often shown.”
Now at this point – as always – we veered off into footy chat. Liam was working on a panorama of Media City when I phoned. He took no time at all to tell me that he’d taken a photograph one evening in January walking from Media City to Old Trafford. Looking back he saw a misty sky.
This was, of course, just to remind me of that evening in January when Burnley beat Man U at Old Trafford for the first time in over fifty years. I could almost hear the grin at the end of the phone.
To try and divert the conversation I asked him to mail me a couple of shots of the painting of that night, which he did and are shown here. A rare chance to see a Liam Spencer painting in progress, in his studio.
But then the chat veered off again into The Lowry being in the work in progress. And we reminisced about his breakthrough exhibition when Salford’s millennium project of The Lowry opened 20 years ago. Yes, it really is 20 years. Liam was one of a very small number of modern artists to be shown alongside those of LS. At that time he was relatively unknown; that exhibition changed things.
He asked if I remembered the Tony Wilson show ‘The Works,’ current at the turn of the century. I did have vague recollections of it and Liam said I’ll send you a YouTube link, which he did:
I watched it and it is a fascinating glimpse back to the year 2000, with the much missed Wilson and the opening of The Lowry as both theatres and galleries.
In it Wilson describes Liam as ‘ The finest painter of the new Manchester.’ Not a bad accolade and, of course, no harm to Liam’s nascent career as an artist. It’s well worth a watch and, I guess, most of Manchester’s Finest patrons will have been too young to have been aware of that Lowry opening or Wilson’s arts programme ‘The Works.’
But back to flowers.
I mentioned to Liam that this show wasn’t too much of a surprise to me as I’d seen paintings of flowers around his studio over the years. Liam told me that in his early years he moved into a new studio in Hanover Mill.
“It was so much better than my previous studio that I just wanted to make it feel at home. I had flowers around, other still life subjects. I enjoyed being in the studio so much that I just painted what was around me. I was very into Matisse at the time. Just wanted to paint flowers and grapes on a table – but in a Mancunian way.”
The paintings on show, online, are either directly observed in his Rossendale studio, with a background through studio windows, or combined with photographic records of sky views which he has observed.
“I was driving back home and the sky was a mass of complex layers. I just had to get out of the car and take a shot.”
Whatever their structure or origin, these beautiful, spontaneous paintings employ Liam Spencer’s skills as a colourist exquisitely. The Manchester landscapes that he is so renowned for are distilled into a micro, rather than macro setting.
Well worth a look, if sadly only online at the moment. Works ‘In Bloom’ by Liam, James Bland, Craig Jefferson, Arthur Neal, Matthew Bourne and Ian Norris can be seen on the Contemporary Six website.
I missed my visit to Liam’s studio, the brew and the footy chat. And seeing the Burnley FC grin rather than just ‘hearing it’ at the end of a ‘phone line. But no doubt he’ll remind me of that January 2020 result again when we are out of lockdown and back in real social contact.