Alex Reuben, owner of the Contemporary Six art gallery in Manchester tells JLife’s Evangeline all about his flourishing independent enterprise and his latest artist showcase, Northern Lights.
From L.S. Lowry to Victoria Wood, Alan Bennett to Morrissey, northern life has always been a source of inspiration for artists. This tradition continued with Chris Cyprus’s 10-year project to depict northern scenes in twilight in Northern Lights, a collection of over 250 compositions.
But the series – which is instantly recognisable for its palette of striking blues, oranges and yellows – is now coming to an end. An exhibition at Contemporary Six near Manchester’s Albert Square, will showcase 36 paintings, including the final composition.
Contemporary Six is owned by Whitefield resident Alex Reuben, who opened the gallery over eight years ago in the Royal Exchange arcade, before moving to a more prominent two-storey position opposite Manchester Town Hall. He first got to know Chris Cyprus in 2014 when the artist came into the old shop at the arcade and they discussed everything from the arts scene, his own work and the weather. Alex eventually asked to display his work and Chris’s pieces have been some of the most popular acquisitions at the gallery since: “One of the reasons they are popular is because they are joyous and celebratory. A lot of northern art can be accused of being gloomy, which is fine, but the North West is a joyful, cheery place, even if the weather is not.
“Because he is interested in local scenes, even though clients might not know the exact spot, they have a connection to the places that he paints.”
The premise of the series was simple: scenes of everyday northern life illuminated by both the setting sun and the distinctive warm glow of sodium street lighting, and the exhibition, which opens on 10th March for three weeks is the final chance for art lovers and local people to see the work.
The shift in Chris’s artistic focus is partly due to his need to seek new challenges, but as BBC’s The One Show’s recent feature on his work revealed, a UK-wide government programme to replace the evocative orange sodium bulb in street lighting with more environmentally-friendly LEDs is rapidly underway. The TV producer’s idea was to capture a street scene before and after the change-over of the bulbs, and the chosen location was a hilly avenue of neat terraced houses in Ramsbottom. After the broadcast went out last October, Chris’s fan base went through the roof and almost all the remaining pictures in the series were sold.
The final painting, a scene which depicts the outside of his mill-based studio in Mossley, is one of the 36 in his closing exhibition and the gallery will also be selling 250 numbered and signed limited edition books based on the series of paintings.
It’s good to hear that the Princess Street gallery has become such a well-known hub for northern artists, despite the apparent scarcity of such art spaces in the city centre. After graduating from Leeds Metropolitan University (now Leeds Beckett University) with a degree in Fine Arts, Reading-born Alex Reuben researched for two years how to fulfil his dream of establishing his own gallery space while he worked: “During my degree course, I always had an interest in other people’s work and I knew towards the end of university that I wanted to open a gallery.”
So in 2010, at the tender age of 24, he opened Contemporary Six (named for unit 6 in the arcade where it began): “It was unbelievably exciting and scary in equal measure. At times it could have closed in the first year, it was really difficult. But now we’re into our eighth year and we’re now seen as one of the top galleries in the North West.”
And how does Alex choose the pieces for the gallery? Surely quite a daunting task for a fledging gallery owner: “A few of my old tutors gave me work to fill the walls when we started,” Alex revealed, “But my tastes have changed over the years. I’m much more confident in what we take. I like to handpick the pieces I get from the artist so that I am talking about and selling pieces that I believe in.”
“For any artist it’s quite an exciting prospect to have your work displayed in the city centre, so we’ve always been able to take on some strong artists. But in recent years we’ve begun to approach artists with national reputations that have had works in public institutions like Manchester Art Gallery, Salford Art Gallery and the Tate, so it’s very exciting.”
The ethos of the gallery is all about making art more accessible, and even attainable, as Alex explains: “I want to show people that you can buy quality pieces and that you don’t have to spend a fortune. Sometimes people are a bit intimidated by galleries, but we’ve got original artwork from £200, and those that are even selling their pieces for £300 to £400 are award-winning artists!
“I like the fact that it’s a relaxed environment and, people come back because we try to be down-to-earth as well as knowledgeable about what we’re selling.” Alex has also recently become a father, so his own artistic ambitions are restricted to concentrating on the gallery while the demands of fatherhood take hold: “I do paint occasionally to relax, but I have a seven-month old baby now so I don’t expect I’ll be painting again for a while! I get very inspired in the gallery and being surrounded by beautiful art and then I get home and I realise that I’m not very good again!”