Saturday, 22 September 2012

Art: Jim Medway - Drawings @ Manchester Art Gallery (2003)

In a tiny space in the Manchester Art Gallery, Jim Medway displays his latest exhibition ‘Drawings’. The Manchester-based artist falls somewhere between the role of the children’s illustrator and the social realist. His images are of real people he sees in and around Manchester, especially the young, urban underclass: the ‘moshers’, the ‘scallies’, and other steroetypes we all recognise. What sets Medway apart from social realism is that his people are depicted as anthropomorphic cats.

Unlike other artists and illustrators who have used anthropomorphic animals in order to humanize the creatures represented, it seems that Medway has used anthropomorphism to represent something entirely different. He uses the feline faces to dehumanize the people he is drawing. The faces are all twisted and scowling rather than representing something cute or lovable (in the Beatrix Potter vain). Medway represents the hostility and negativity within these people - the anger and the boredom that he sees.

Medway sees his work as positive - a humorous and affectionate depiction of the “lovable rogues” he sees around Manchester. Medway’s imagery seems to contradict this assertion: the facial expressions are clearly over-exaggerated, with the scowls are distorted beyond normal human and feline facial capabilities.

The use of cats connotes negative emotions. Cats have been portrayed as lazy, anti-social, unfaithful and, at times, evil. The symbolism of cats represents the people in the drawings as strays aimlessly wandering the streets of Manchester. Medway claims that the drawings are affectionate towards the people represented. It is very easy to read an oppositional meaning of this. The exaggerated facial expressions and the use of anthropomorphic cats only serve to reinforce a negative message.

An image of a young girl has been drawn on one of the walls in black marker pen. The girl is smiling, wearing a plain dress and picking flowers. This image is obscured by two framed drawings of teenage gang members. Rather than trying to show any essence of youth culture and identity in a positive way, this obscuring of the young girl shows how the childhood innocence of that young girl will soon be lost to teenage curiosity. The white dress symbolizes purity and is juxtaposed against the black ‘Slipknot’ hoodies and ‘Duffer’ jackets of the teenage tear-aways.

The artist fails to achieve social realism and achieves nothing more than an exaggeration of stereotypes. The characters in the drawings are more like the lovable characters from children’s books that have grown up and rebelled, than a fair representation of Manchester’s youth. Medway’s work is let down by its underlying contradictions and the artist’s inability to be honest: honest with the public, and perhaps honest with himself.

Jim Medway’s ‘Drawings’ will be on exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery until the 16th November 2003.

This article was originally published in the Art Fist catalogue in 2003.

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