Jake Manning takes us into his creative world, for insight into his first solo show at Nationale, Guests of Space.
Paul Maziar: In The Myth, the guy with boots seems to disappear/into the weight and powder of the birthday cake. Given the spacey background (nothingness) it's both hilarious and bleak, right? How might tragicomedy figure in your work?
Jake Manning: I’ve always had a dry sense of humor, even a little twisted. I think I’m dealing with serious subject-matter, but it’s kind of hard for me to fully express that sort of thing. Humor, using cartoon imagery, myths, fairytales — those things are a vehicle for me. For instance, it used to be that when a country had been invaded, they would save vital cultural information by storing it away in fairytales. Fairytales are also full of promise, the ugly can become beautiful, the frog can become a prince.
PM: I wonder about time-travel in your practice: going back to the earlier periods of your youth while you’re painting.
JM: For these paintings, I’ve been going into a certain mode. I’m prone to periods of preoccupation — when I was young it was sports, playing basketball, spending hours on end at the gym. I’m slow to process whole periods of my life, like ten years behind or something. So I’ll begin to process that period of time, and search for meaning in my life. Like, “I do all that for nothing?”
In my early-twenties I started watching films, kind of obsessively — multiple films a day, etc. When I started painting, I’d been absorbed in film this way for over ten years. I started asking myself “what am I really doing here?” Feeling like I needed to figure something out, I started painting. Almost immediately, I realized that I was processing all these films from that specific period of my life. I would go through all of my favorite movies, scene by scene and take photos of my favorite scenes. I didn’t think about why they stuck out to me, I just took them. I started doing all these paintings of particular scenes, and it was eery to me because these scenes were so telling the story of where I was in my life during those exact moments. For example, at that time I was feeling pretty isolated, and like I needed to be something that I wasn’t. Through that process, I was able to access things that I’m not able to in ordinary day-to-day life. Intuitively, I’d been selecting imagery that aligned with deeper things I’d been experiencing. Trusting intuition had become super important to me.
PM: This makes me want to ask about the Butterfly Man — a leitmotif in your paintings, and also the gnome-like figure that recurs. You had said something in the studio about a figure that grants admission to the past, a kind of spirit of the past. Is painting those forms a way to summon these deep subjects and memories?
JM: Kind of. I tell little stories in my paintings. I’ll start intuitively, and imagery will spring up that I don’t really care all that much about, so I’ll paint or scrape over it, repaint, etc. Here’s the interesting thing. Say I start a painting and I’ll want it to be a certain thing — the Butterfly Man is a good example. I’ll begin, and come to a point where it’s just not working for whatever reason. So I’ll get rid of it, painting and repainting… but eventually, I’ll come back to that initial imagery, but in a totally different form that’s more in line with what I’m trying to do aesthetically, in the language of painting. It’s interesting to me that that happens. I’ll also sometimes feel guilty about staying in the past so much.
PM: Why guilt?
JM: I think it’s because of all those sayings, you know: “don’t look back,” or “get over it,” etc. But I think there are things to be worked through from the past. Sometimes, I’m just trying to figure out why I’m so pissed off.
PM: So is that one reason you might invoke happy things from childhood, like the boots that you loved wearing as a kid?
JM: Yeah, I’m always trying to keep a balance. If I start to go too dark, I’ll lean on what’s funny. Or cutesy.
PM: What about your huge pink painting with the pony, Trojan Horse?
JM: The paint in that one is applied very gently, with dry brush, and I used marble dust, which is this powdery substance. It’s like I was applying makeup. It created a haze, a kind of softness to it. It’s the same sort of haze as going back in time, and also learning to trust intuition. It’s a hazy process, especially at the beginning. I sort of equate that with digging around in the past, to try and figure things out. It really is when the body comes into the process: learning to trust if something resonates with you, by creating a dialogue with your body.
PM: Sometimes people will call for representational art, something that’s more obviously from life. But sometimes, I can see life in certain pieces of abstract art, just as readily as a human form or a face. The super abstract element of that painting — there’s so much life in that. In such a way that it’s almost an experience unto itself.
JM: That’s what I want to. During my BFA, I was painting pretty abstract. It was the first time I was able to work out of a studio, with a lot of space. I knew that I was just going to use a LOT of paint, and I was going to use my body. I wanted to depict space, without the illusion of veils of paint.
It’s embarrassing to say, for some reason, but going to see the Rothko paintings at the museum was one of the most moving experiences. I wanted to hate Rothko — there was that huge exhibit in town and everyone was like “oh, yeah, I went and cried…” But my friend and I went to see the show, and ended up staring at one of his all-black paintings. I locked into the surface of the painting, and all of a sudden it started to move. I was seeing purple and white emerging out of the back of it — it was so trippy. I realized later that it was probably just because it’s a huge black painting and my eyes were adjusting to the darkness. But I felt tricked by that a little bit. At the time, I wanted it to be something else…
PM: Did you cry? [laughter]
JM: I didn’t cry, but we stood there for half an hour just staring at that one painting. During my BFA, I wanted to make these space paintings. I was telling myself that I didn’t want to create an illusion — I wanted the paint to be thick and loose and messy.
PM: It’s funny then, that this show is called Guests of Space. Because it’s that space you were working with before — or at least similar — but now with all these figures and forms, landscapes: your “guests.”
JM: Yep. But I think there’s still a part of me that wants to do these large paintings that are more like an experience. Washes of pink light and stuff like that. But I’m also not quite there yet, and I feel like there’s too much imagery floating around in my head. I was a TV kid. My sister says that I would just often be found just sitting, staring at the TV. My mom says that she walked in once to find me kissing the TV. I was really into it. I feel like I have to work through all that imagery.
PM: I think it’s a great idea to obey your mind in that way. Your body, too. It seems like you’re really in touch with yourself and psychic needs.
JM: Painting helps with that.
PM: I gotta get painting then. To get back, why do you like to go rooting around in the past?
JM: With painting, I think I always feel like I’m trying to get to a place where I connect with people. I’m always running that through. Dealing with emotion through painting has been really interesting to me — it has really anchored my life in a way. It definitely helped me process difficult things. When I went under hypnosis, it was such an interesting experience because I was lucid. The most profound experiences prior to that were more psychedelic. Those experiences were profound but also kind of scary, dealing with lots of primal imagery like serpents and stuff like that. To this day, snakes are a primal fear for me. I grew up close to a lake in Texas with snakes all around. So, I’d gone to get hypnotized to try and quit smoking, and it ended up being, basically, a trip through the past where I revisited certain unnerving events. In hypnosis I was able to enter these kinds of moments and calm my child self down. That’s where the butterfly comes in. It’s like a symbol, it represents a journey to a particular time in my life, like the ghost from christmas past.
PM: Why do you think that the snake has always been such a prominent symbol?
JM: I think it’s a really primal thing that appears to be negative, but that needs to be confronted. It’s a transformative kind of thing. I think that’s what's supposed to happen, but doing that is a different story.
PM: So you believe that fears should be faced, dealt with.
JM: Yes, for me it is important to try and face my fears, but I always have to remind myself to be patient and gentle and use the tools that I have worked on with my therapist — otherwise it is easy for me to feel overwhelmed.
PM: I’ve been feeling like the times we’re living in really require us to be doing that. I mean, I’ve been feeling that pull in my creative practice. Do you feel that engagement in purely aesthetic exercises is sometimes being replaced by a concern… or work that engages with what’s happening to people, and making connections to that?
JM: It’s a real cut-the-bullshit kind of time. During recent times of social upheavals, I’ve reflected in my studio, asking myself “what the hell am I doing?” I’ve been stern with myself about my work, kind of saying “in order to make art during this intense time, I’d better be honest and serious about what I’m doing.” There’s no posturing during this time. Brutal honesty, raw. That’s why I’ve been working this way, representationally. Get it all out. In a way, it’s what we have to do.