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   Inside Out - North West: Monday September 11, 2006

Liam Spencer

Times Square c/o Liam Spencer
Vision of New York - Times Square Stars and Stripes

Liam Spencer is one of the rising stars of the British contemporary arts scene, renowned for his vivid portrayals of the urban landscape around Manchester.

Inside Out follows his progress as he prepares for a major exhibition of his paintings in Manchester, and speaks to the fans who've been snapping up his work.

In this exclusive web interview, we ask Liam Spencer about his latest exhibition and his work.

Sue Wilkinson asks the questions:

What made you want to become an artist - and how young were you when you first picked up a paint brush and palette?

I can't remember when I first picked up a paint brush - I was probably too young.

I became an artist by a process of eliminating all the things I didn't want to do, and the things I did want to do but couldn't i.e. be a North American Indian (in Burnley), footballer (not good enough), full time fisherman (poor career prospects).

What attracted you to painting landscapes?

I quickly discovered that I wasn't really interested in making non representational art, and I couldn't work easily from memory and imagination, so I turned quite naturally to the subject matter that was under my nose, the urban landscape where I lived, studied and worked.

Which artists have been an influence on your work?

Traffic warden - New York c/o Liam Spencer
Street life - New York painting by Liam Spencer

I've been influenced by many artists at different times and for different reasons.

A short list would have to include Frank Auerbach, Ivon Hitchens, Gwen John, Winifred Nicholson, Monet, Marquet, Matisse, Bonnard, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Bomberg, Morandi and, most of all, Vermeer.

I've surprised myself by how many English artists are in that list.

How would you describe your style of painting?

I suppose that I think of myself as being closest to the Impressionist artists, especially early in the movement when artists like Monet were dealing with the rapidly changing modern world.

I paint fairly broadly, with big brushes, and I'm trying to convey how we might see the world at a glance - the big impressions - not how we see the world when we stare at it and count the number of trees, or register the minutiae of the scene.

How do you feel about having an exhibition at the Manchester City Art Gallery?

I'm delighted to be showing at the Manchester Art Gallery.

Piccadilly Fog c/o Liam Spencer
Piccadilly Fog - detail of Liam Spencer's painting

I've always seen exhibitions as my main concern, and to do so in a major gallery in a major city is as good as it gets.

There's free admission, loads of visitors, school kids galore, and lots of great education work going on behind the scenes.

I've been visiting Manchester Art Gallery for 20 odd years.

I didn't really think I'd be exhibiting there!

How did you choose the paintings?

The paintings were selected in conjunction with Clare Gannaway and Sandra Martin from MAG.

We wanted to have a retrospective element to the show. The earliest paintings are from about 15 years ago, and come right up to the present.

It's very difficult task to select from the hundreds that exist, and we couldn't cover every subject.

With the space we had available, we wanted to demonstrate how the paintings had evolved over the years, and represent the main subject areas.

And of course, we all wanted to include our particular favourites.

Which is your favourite painting and why?

Madonna and child watching TV c/o Liam Spencer
Brushstrokes - Liam Spencer's Madonna and Child

If I was forced to choose one, it would probably be the painting of Times Square - Stars and Stripes.

I was a bit reluctant to sell it, but appreciate being able to borrow it back and put it on public display.

Also I'm very sentimentally attached to the painting of my wife and son - Madonna, Child and Television.

Can you describe the New York paintings and how they compare to Manchester?

New York and Manchester are both great cities.

They are very different in scale, but there are some visual comparisons.

I took the rain with me to make me feel at home!

New York is an exciting place - every street corner provides a dramatic vista.

Manchester is what I know best, so I have no inferiority complex about continuing with Manchester landscapes.

What can you tell us about the Chinese work?

The trip to China was very brief. I visited three cities, Honk Kong, Beijing and Shanghai in 10 days!

I barely scratched the surface, but it provided plenty of materiel to work with.

Shanghai at night is pretty special.

Your new exhibition at Philips Gallery is a joint one with photographer Jan Chlebik - is this the first time you've come together?

Studio view c/o Liam Spencer
Street scene - a view from the artist's studio

No. I exhibited with Jan once before some years ago.

I am looking forward to being reunited with an artist whose work I admire and has been an influence on my own work.

Why do you find urban landscapes so fascinating? What visual images excite you most?

I suppose the fact that most of us live and work in the urban landscape leads me to believe that it should be the subject for painting.

It might be tempting to think that landscape painting should take place in the countryside.

I suppose I get added satisfaction from finding beauty in unexpected places.

It's also the landscape that I know best, and see on a continuous basis.

I think I'm always drawn to light and colour, wherever I find it.

What do you make of comparisons with LS Lowry?

I think the comparisons with Lowry are inevitable really, as I suppose he pioneered art about the industrial north, and in some ways I've picked up on that.

My work is perhaps closer to Impressionism in that I'm responding to what's there and to light, colour and weather conditions.

How would you respond to anyone who called you a 'Mancunian artist'?

I seem to have become an honorary Mancunian by adoption or association, but I'm not a Mancunian, just a long stay visitor.

What inspires you about your home town of Burnley?

Turf Moor by Liam Spencer
Turf Moor, Burnley - detail from Liam Spencer painting

I didn't take much notice of my surroundings when I grew up in Burnley.

Now when I go back there, I'm struck by how quickly you can be in the beautiful landscapes which surround it.

I like the moors and the ever changing light, and I've also made paintings of Turf Moor, the home of Burnley Football Club - I particularly like night matches.

How easy or hard is it for an artist with international aspirations to be based in Manchester?

I don't think being in Manchester is a handicap.

I think it's seen as a pretty vibrant place by people outside of this country.

I don't know whether it would be easier being based in a major city like London or New York, I've never tried it!

Visit the online photo gallery of Liam Spencer's work.

Where to see the paintings:

Shanghai Skyline c/o Liam Spencer
Shanghai Skyline (detail) - Liam Spencer goes international

Liam Spencer's paintings can be seen at the following galleries:

* Philips Contemporary Art Gallery - a joint exhibition with photographer Jan Chlebik.

The exhibition runs from 12th-30th September, with a preview on Saturday 9th.

Philips Contemporary Art, 10a Little Lever Street, Manchester M1 1HR.
Tel: 07968 047224

* Manchester Art Gallery - the exhibition Manchester to Shanghai continues until 24th September.


All photographs and images by kind permission and copyright of Liam Spencer.

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About the artist...

IMO c/o Liam Spencer
Street life - Liam Spencer's urban landscape

Liam Spencer finds beauty in what others might consider banal, from canals and chip shops to motorways and modern buildings.

In his hands, a drab and dreary city scene on a wet and miserable day can appear beguiling and beautiful.

Visit the online photo gallery of Liam Spencer's work.

Liam is particularly attracted to modern urban landscapes, and he's renowned for transforming humdrum scenes into eerily beautiful portraits of light, colour and movement.

Liam Spencer Fact File

Born 1964 in Burnley.

Completed an arts foundation course at Burnley College.

Studied for a degree in Fine Art at Manchester Polytechnic, graduating in 1986.

'The Mancunian Way' exhibitions in 1997-98 did much to establish Spencer's reputation.

Invited to stage the first solo exhibition of contemporary art, 'Urban Panoramas', at the new Lowry Centre in Salford in 2000.

He has exhibited across the UK including Manchester, London and Oxford.

The Manchester environment continues to be a huge source of inspiration.

One of Liam's favourite views is a street in Salford which he remembers from when he was a child sitting on the top deck of a bus.

One of Liam's favourite places to paint is his home town of Burnley where everyday locations have once again inspired his work.

Another favourite location is the Mancunian Way, frequently captured in his early paintings. It was a view that Liam used to see everyday from his studio window.

Today he works from his studios in the Rossendale Valley.

He finds beauty in surprising places, from bleak industrial wastelands to everyday images of urban street life.

Liam has an ability to make unattractive places such as petrol stations, cafes and urban motorways look appealing.

"I suppose over a period of the last few years, I've been painting more expansive landscapes where you can see the sky and the light and the changes," says Liam.

"And it's only more recently that I've been able to zoom in and find more intimate things like a chip shop or a burger bar.

"I suppose it's still about light and colour, and that's what really appeals to me really.

"I suppose I'm always looking for beauty in unexpected places.
Mancunian images."

Manchester is where Liam started his career as an artist, and it is here that he became more aware of his surroundings and the beauty of the urban landscape.

Whilst studying he was inspired by the city's deserted canals and its gritty industrial scenes.

"I think what struck me most really were all the warehouses, and the mill buildings, to a lesser extent - these wonderful, red brick structures. That made a big impression," recalls Liam.

"I like the fact that the canals run right through the heart of Manchester and they're slightly hidden, although less so now, and you just had this linear oasis through rough parts of the city like Ancoats."


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Nick Freeman and Caprice c/o Getty Images
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