Review of Matthew Darbyshire: An Exhibition for Modern Living at Manchester Art Gallery

The title of Matthew Darbyshire’s (b. 1977) largest solo exhibition to date is layered with allusions, in much the same way as the work on show. On one level, it’s straightforwardly referential: An Exhibition for Modern Living was a landmark showcase of the best of modern “design for living” at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1949. On the another, Darbyshire draws diverse inspiration from this: the ten large-scale installations (or “environments,” as the artist refers to them) on the top floor of Manchester Art Gallery are arranged in an echoing grid structure – as well as sharing a similar preoccupation with the place that design has in our society.

“The closest we’re going to get to a representation of ‘us’ now is behind closed doors,” Darbyshire says. “I’m always into interiors, because they seem to be… It’s really where objects exist.” Bearing this in mind, his environments are a way of turning the inside, out: they look like caricatured versions of human living spaces that someone’s knocked the walls down from around (in fact, the environment that again picks up the title, An Exhibition for Modern Living (2012), was first built to exactly fit Darbyshire’s living room).

The sense of exposure is strong: by displaying an over-concentration of iconic objects like the Egg chair, as in Blades House (2008), or a kind of infantalised zone, with wipe-clean cushions, neon and primary colours, as in Palac (2009), Darbyshire uses art as a way to problematise taste, and to point to the political and economic agendas that drive design. In many ways, Darbyshire has created a modern cabinet of curiosities, filled with recurrences that can’t quite be called categories, such as the rash of magenta objects in the installation An Exhibition for Modern Living (an outbreak of colour he noticed following three months of photographic research), but that tend towards a troubling homogeneity.

Darbyshire seems, overall, suspicious of modern design, its value and the processes behind it. Specially recreated for this exhibition is Oak Effect (2012), which uses wooden objects from Manchester Art Gallery’s collection and tessellates them with a structure made from flat-pack furniture; for this, Darbyshire forced himself to ignore the value of the gallery’s pieces, and to focus on form instead: the “juxtaposition of used, patinated, against the sterile, antiseptic flat-pack”. Similarly, he’s trying to reconcile technology with his love for the artisanal; one of two new sculptures in the gallery’s entrance hall takes a classical Greek figure and recreates it from layers of hand-cut, multi-coloured polycarbonate.

This, it seems, is where Darbyshire is tending next: he is currently attempting to develop a glue gun that will allow him to sculpt in plastic layers, like a human 3D printer. As an artist, then, his index is firmly on the work he creates – and his thumb against the pulse of modern living.

Polly Checkland Harding

Matthew Darbyshire: An Exhibition for Modern Living, until 10 January 2016, Manchester Art Gallery, Mosley Street, Manchester, M2 2JL

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1. Matthew Darbyshire,  An Exhibition for Modern Living installation view, 2015. Courtesy of Manchester Art Gallery © Michael Pollard.