Men Who Like Women Who Smell Of Their Jobs at John Rylands Library

Polly Checkland Harding
Painting of a woman in a cage with a budgerigar.

An exhibition of paintings and short stories completes a trio of installations at John Rylands Library, bringing a wonderful strangeness with it.

Men Who Like Women Who Smell Of Their Jobs is, in some ways, an exercise in incongruity. This small exhibition of stories and paintings at John Rylands Library is far from harmonious: the art work takes and twists the tales, the writing itself is surreal, and the title, though itself deserving of a prize, is far from indicative of a theme, or coherence. But, in many ways, this is the pleasure of it. The more surreal the exhibition gets, the more satisfying it feels: this is a celebration of the odd, the disjointed – of the lost and found.

Writer David Gaffney’s 150 word stories, taken from his critically acclaimed collection Sawn Off Tales, are wonderful for the way they make the world strange. A man talks to his budgerigar, hangs oval mirrors in his bedroom then falls in love with the cleaner he hires to remove them. There’s a dream sequence with dolls in glass jars, children growing up under alter egos and one story that involves an enormous penis. Perhaps the most eerie is the one where a man finds hundreds of glass eyes, hidden in the silt of a river bed.

The art work takes and twists the tales, the writing itself is surreal

Speaking to Gaffney about his stories, and his word limit, reveals surprisingly normal origins. The glass eyes idea came from his research into a glass eye factory in East Germany, a place once isolated behind the Iron Curtain, now complete with its own website and marketing department. And the 150 word length? That started with a commission he was given, which led to his falling in love with the restriction. He described his process of writing long, then reducing and distilling the words to their essentials.

There’s something paired-back about the paintings from young contemporary artist Alison Erika Forde’s, too. They are spare, unusually literal, and almost cartoonish in style. Forde has used found objects for some, including a circle of tree trunk and a wooden plate. Resting on red velvet in small glass cases, the words and images are presented with a misleading neatness.

The exhibition’s title compliments, also, the other literary-themed installation currently on display; Echo and Narcissus uses mirrors to reflect on women in literature, and shares a room with Breathing Books, one of the two pieces that come as part of the library’s contribution to Asia Triennial Manchester. The three projects, dotted around the library’s reading room, stairwell and gothic corridors, make for a lovely, intriguing trail about the place. Go along and get lost in it.

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