Hannah Sycamore reviews the Manchester City Art Gallery’s First Cut exhibition. 

A work by Manabu Hangai featured at First Cut

A work by Manabu Hangai featured at First Cut


Awful pun I know! The First Cut was in fact a truly superb exhibition that was on throughout November, December and into January in our very own metropolis of North-Manchester (which the gallery constantly reminded you of by filling the hall surrounding the exhibition space with Lowrys). The City Art Gallery hosted 31 contemporary artists who work solely with paper. Paper works were integrated throughout the whole gallery. To be perfectly honest, I only went as I was curious as to how mere paper could fill such a large space. I was astounded by what could be achieved with what is essentially a humble and accessible medium. The exhibits ranged from large to small. Mia Pearlman created a wonderful ceiling to floor nebula (based on imagery from the Hubble telescope) completely out of black paper. Claire Brewster carefully cut butterflies and birds, which were spread throughout other sections in the City Art Gallery, transporting the exhibition into all artistic eras and tactfully merging painting and contemporary craft. I adored this element of the exhibition; it was as if the butterflies had broken free from their restrictive contemporary setting and merged with the 17th and 18th century in a completely harmonious way. I was impressed not only with the quality, scale and sheer imagination of these works but also with the gallery’s construction of the exhibition. They successfully demonstrated the success of a variety of contemporary artists working with a rather humble medium.

Of all the artists on display, two particularly caught my eye. These were the works of Su Blackwell and Beatice Coron. Blackwell works with copies of old fairytales or fictional stories to create works relating to the text. Some (especially book lovers) would probably view this as carnage and akin to burning books (as Blackwell is essentially destroying the book during her artistic process). However, I would disagree. At the exhibition she displayed a rather small work inside a black box, lit by tiny spotlights, illuminating the creation within. What she had created to my mind was a physical embodiment of the ‘escapism’ you experience while reading a book. Blackwell created a complete Wuthering Heights out of Wuthering Heights. I felt she fully encapsulated the imaginary world into which we enter when reading Wuthering Heights through a physical representation of her own perception of the house. When I imagine Wuthering Heights, I envisage a lost romantic house on the Yorkshire moors. I feel Blackwell captured this imaginary, romantic world in her own paper Wuthering Heights. The theme of imagined worlds and fairy tales runs throughout the exhibition and Blackwell’s fantasy world is mirrored in Manabu Hangei’s leafy forest, into which we can literally immerse ourselves within the gallery space. In this forest we can transport ourselves to another world, in the same way that we transport ourselves to the world of Heathcliff and Cathy when we peer down on Blackwell’s creation.

The other artist who caught my attention is more interested in modernity than fantasy life. Beatrice Coron creates detailed works out of a single sheet of black card, into which she carves intricate scenes. In a sense her works are fantasy, as they show living skeletons within the swirl of the modern metropolis. In a second piece the skeletons are trapped. The skeletons appear working, cooking, cleaning and performing the monotonous tasks of everyday drudgery in their private domestic spheres. The figures are ground down by the world around them and trapped within domestic confines. Her work expresses the monotony of everyday life and the inevitability of our own fatality. Despite their rather morbid nature, I found these ‘papercuts’, as Coron calls them, to be beautiful. Coron has my full respect as I suspect she must have the patience of a saint in order to complete such large yet precise and intricate works!

All in all a fantastic, well laid out, originally curated and stimulating exhibition. But more than that – it was inspiring. I could not believe that paper, as such an accessible medium, could create such intricate and impressive artwork.


Hannah Sycamore


Image by Greg Myers