How Narbi Price Captures the History of Ordinary Places by Sara Jaspan

Sep 14, 2016 8:49PM

Without context, Manchester’s newly developed Exchange Square might seem nothing more than the epitome of smart, anonymous, a-historic urban space. The screaming freshness of Metrolink yellow and the disorientating gleam of unworn pavement offer up little. But nowhere is without a past, particularly here, the site of the 1996 IRA bombing – an event still present in many people’s minds.

Narbi Price - Codeword @ PAPER, Manchester

As with so much of Narbi Price’s work, the shift in significance provided by this added layer of knowledge plays an important role in his latest series "Codeword." Comprised of just two paintings, "Codeword" depicts the city as it is today. One image shows a non-descript bench and the corner of a billboard ad, while the other frames a red postbox and the edge of the entrance to Selfridges. The first view is the exact spot where the van carrying the bomb was parked, 20 years ago. The second is of the now legendary Royal Mail postbox: one of the only objects to have withstood the blast (despite its positioning at the epicentre) and which is still in service today.

Presented as part of the Manchester Histories Festival, the exhibition coincides neatly with the anniversary of the bombing. However, Price had been playing with the idea of making the paintings for some time. He was about 17-years-old when the explosion took place and, despite being from Hartlepool, was already familiar with the city after making regular trips to see bands such as Deftones and Machine Head play. He describes his memories of discovering the news as "half-remembered and glimpsed"—qualities that seem visible in both paintings. 

An artist who usually works on canvas, Price has embraced the medium of paper in a playful way. Price explores the limitations provided by the material's flatness by creating a rough border to work within. The paint is then able to stray and drip freely out of this framework. This technique gives each piece a somewhat momentary appearance: destabilizing the scene, while simultaneously physicalising time through the visible process of paint drying.

Untitled Postbox Painting (15/6/96), Acrylic on Paper, 2016

The approach is interesting given his choice of subject: a comparatively recent event that is publicly remembered. Previously, Price has previously on forgotten place histories, such his "Shan’t Quit" paintings that depict non-descript, non-locations around London where the Jack the Ripper murders took place. These works give a new significance to sections of space you would have normally overlooked. In his previous work, Prince has also explored private place histories, such as the personal significance of a gutter or cement path. On work, for example, centers on a spot where the artist was once attacked on his way home.

The ragged edges and heightened presence of the "Codeword" paintings seems to respond to this rawer choice of subject. Remarkably, the show was installed at PAPER on the same day as the bomb scare and evacuation at Old Trafford Football Stadium. Price reflects on how it was not until the 1996 Manchester bombing—disrupting the streets he had walked—that the spectre of the IRA bombing became real to him. The name for the show springs from his on-going fascination with the unspecified codeword that was used as a warning to evacuate the area before the explosion occurred, which prevented any fatalities.

Yet, as is characteristic of Price’s work, "Codeword" remains foremost a series of paintings about painting. When viewed from a distance, both pieces have a photographic appearance (the medium that Price begins with, as a form of documentation, and then paints from). However, when seen close up, large expanses of color collapse into more abstract experiments. The sliding glass door behind the red postbox is represented by a Howard Hodgkin-style thick brush of paint. The grubby wall in the background is a sea of loose, varied tones. The dark-green bench is more recognizably a trapezium, which sits awkwardly within the space of the painting, as if transposed from elsewhere.

Untitled Bench Painting (15/6/96), Acrylic on Paper, 2016

The unusual framing and subject matter of Price’s work developed out of a desire to challenge himself artistically through limitations. An encounter with his paintings inevitably also poses a challenge to the viewer, leaving us with a keenness to not only notice our surroundings, but be responsive to what other occurrences and stories they might have held.

— Sara Jaspan

Sara Jaspan is the editor of PAPER Magazine. Sara is a writer based in Manchester who works at the Liverpool Biennial. She is a recipient of CVAN NW Bursary. Sara has written for a-n, This is Tomorrow, Creative Tourist and Art Monthly.

"Codeword" was presented at PAPER in June 2016 as part of the Manchester Histories Festival (3 – 12 June). Narbi Price is a Newcastle-based artist and a prize winner in the John Moores Painting Prize 2012.