Michael Manning’s Paintings: A New Mythology
What is the condition of painting today? Where are the bold, visionary gestural painters?
When I ask these questions I suppose I’m speaking from a mid-twentieth century bias. At some level, I want to see the painter’s hand at work within the canvas. I want to see more of the idiosyncratic rhythms and movement of Joan Mitchell, or the mellow atmospheric heft of Mark Rothko.
This isn’t one of those “What ever happened to American painting after Abstract Expressionism” laments. That movement, for all its cerebral foment and subsequent fame, was highly specific to its time and place in postwar New York. With the Second World War, many felt that they had experienced or witnessed destruction on an unprecedented scale. The issue facing the artist-intellectual of the late 40s was how to make sense of the loss of life in the European and Pacific theaters of war, the Holocaust, and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some of that is palpable in paintings like Willem de Kooning’s Excavation (1950), which alludes to the horror of mass graves in concentration camps, and Mark Rothko’s Personage Two (1946), that references the haze of destruction from both Allied and Nazi bombings. In this struggle to articulate the anxieties of the mid twentieth century consciousness, the Abstract Expressionists gave us new modes of representation that have been modified and re-appropriated among artists all over the world. It’s interesting, too, that this type of abstract painting, expansive and with a detailed focus on color and line, tends to have a broad corporate appeal. I suppose what’s easy on the eye looks good in a large room: a large sensuously appealing gestural triptych à la de Kooning’s or Joan Mitchell looks great in any lobby or conference room. But that’s only a small part of a larger question about the possibilities and outcomes of painting.
I often wonder what it was like for critics and scholars when they were on the verge of discovering something exciting within the contemporary. What was it like for Michael Fried when he first came across Morris Louis’ soak-stain canvases—I mean, beyond what we already know from his lyrical accounts? Or what inspired Barbara Rose’s particular selection of artists for her famous show, American Painting: The Eighties, for NYU’s Grey Gallery in 1979, which included Elaine Lustig, Richard Hennessy and Louisa Chase, among others. In a review of the show for New York Magazine in 1979, the poet and art critic John Ashbery, though praising the show’s boldness and imagination, called Rose’s selection of artists “an arbitrary canonization.” In talking about the great Abstract Expressionists and their unshakeable enduring influence, Ashbery quoted Auden: “The mouse you banished yesterday/Is an enraged rhinoceros today.”
In trying to find the best among the abstract painters in America now, I’ve stumbled across the work of Michael Manning. The vast majority of people won’t know much about this forty-something abstract painter based out of New York and Connecticut, I certainly didn’t, but I believe there’s something there in his work that is quite rare and singular, something that I see in the works of artists like Joan Mitchell and Nancy Graves, something that falls into that sense of cohesive creative unity that you see only among exceptional painters.
The first Michael Manning paintings I came across were his pastel series from 2013 that were featured in Art Basel Miami, White Flag and Head Over Feet. I can the hear the voice of some critics, going off in my head, dismissing them as smooth, sensuously appealing hotel art. It’s true, they’re easy on the eyes, but there’s much more to them than that.
Take a painting like White Flag, a de Kooning-esque work done in acrylics. The water-based quality of acrylics enables the paint to take on the look of watercolor or gouache so that the pastels have a floaty quality of the airy smeared and scumbled de Koonings of the late 1950s and early 60s.
Bright sea foam greens transition into creamy lilacs that blur into rosy pinks and lime greens and lemon sherbet yellows. At a cursory superficial level, it can seem like a supersized version of colors from a Lily Pulitzer print, but there’s an overall sense of continuity, skill, and seamless interweaving of pigment and line that reminds one of the best of Joan Mitchell. Head Over Feet gets you with its bright squiggle-sliver of red in the corner, like a scorpion on a valentine.
From these pastel series, one realizes that Michael Manning is one of those rare contemporary painters, like Cecily Brown and Peter Doig, who understands the precise qualities of his medium and its vast possibilities.
His more recent work veers into the figurative with a new set of energies and ideas that focus on the mythic. Gone are the smooth pastel squiggles from a year ago. In Manning’s new set of paintings we see a stricken Jonah trapped in the heaving belly of the whale, flanked by other helpless shipwrecked people in a Basquiat-like swirl of reds and blues and chartreuse. There’s the angel Gabriel, radiant in a white silhouette, flanked by female attendants, that reminds one of Klimt’s Beethoven frieze in Vienna.
Then there’s some extraordinary paintings of horses that seem like a cross between Caravaggio and Pat Steir.
The turn towards depicting the “mythic” isn’t necessarily new for Manning, but rather something that has been simmering in his creative cauldron for a long time:
“Throughout my life I have been attracted to the stories in mythology and religion, and this has been expressed in much of my work. At an early age I questioned the meaning and purpose behind these stories and the messages they were imparting. My paintings began to use stories within mythology, along with my perspective of right and wrong, as a framework for addressing current issues faced by society. With the use of traditional mythology as a foundation, I see the new work as a kind of new mythology — new stories commenting on current issues. These stories have been constructed from my individual point of view, but reflect universal significance and meaning.”
The need for a “new mythology” is a salient point. Every artist tries to articulate the present condition of his or her world through a unique language. Myths and stories provide us with the template to find that language. I think it’s refreshing to hear a painter talk this way. It’s easy to feel jaded about the art we see now, where mass-produced workshop pieces of quasi-Pop Art are auctioned off for millions to anonymous collectors. At times one feels that the art people seem to care about the most is the art that makes news. What drew me to Manning’s work was his focus on detailed craftsmanship and his commitment to search for something larger and timeless within his work. Fundamentally, he’s a great painter, like the handful of other great painters out there now, like Cecily Brown and Peter Doig, who have that rare gift for understanding how the eye responds to color and depth and how it wanders over the surface of a canvas.
This reminds me a little of how Mark Rothko described his color field paintings, the blocks of “hovering” color as part of something “tragic and timeless” in an eternal existential drama of life and death. Recall Jackson Pollock’s Pashiphae (1947) or Mark Rothko’s The Sacrifice of Iphegenia (1942), which both use myth and folklore as a way of coming to terms with their current condition in postwar America. What could Manning be trying to contend with? The anxiety of collective global tensions after 9/11? U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan? The global financial meltdown? The burst of the housing bubble and large-scale unemployment? The anxieties of mass surveillance and the end of privacy? It’s hard to know. What we do know is that Manning’s work, and his comments, address a timeless need within the visual arts, particularly within painting, to search for an individual language to articulate the universal.
What do you think? Leave a comment.