abstract art, a systems view

David Manley, Deadly Delicious at Tarpey Gallery

with 9 comments

At Tarpey Gallery, David Manley‘s new paintings on circular (sometimes oval) aluminium supports have a wonderful, shiny gold- leaf quality, a consequence partly of the support and partly of the method of painting in semi transparent layers of different colours. They remind me of icons, but bigger, and it’s diseases they represent not divinities, if indeed they are representations.  After all, the sensuality of the paint and luminosity of colour seem to be enjoyed in their own right, and I cannot easily verify their likeness to the specific viruses of their titles, because not being an epidemiologist I don’t often look at viruses through a microscope. So, I have little choice anyway, but to respond to each image on its own terms.

If I had not seen the title Smallpox nor made the connection to the deadliness of the Deadly Delicious series, it might have been only the deliciousness of this painting I paid attention to, with the informal handling of paint, but then also the careful building up of layers creating this hard, pearlescent surface. And there’s the vibrancy of the colours and the figural similarity to a bunch of grapes. It’s only as I look at the picture with “deadly” in mind that I start to wonder if the colours might be slightly too much, about to tip over into the fluorescence I might associate with dead things or deadly materials, the green of acid perhaps. It’s a feast of contradictions, seeming to celebrate the state of being “in-between”.

David Manley, DDA 1 - Smallpox.  Acrylic on Aluminium, 90cm d

David Manley, DDA 1 – Smallpox. Acrylic on Aluminium, 90cm d. Image by courtesy of the artist

Manley is interested in viruses “because they inhabit a place somewhere between living and ‘dead’ or dormant things”, almost as if they are analogous with the situation of the paintings as somewhere between abstract and representational. The circular shape is “in between” landscape and portrait, or perhaps neither landscape nor portrait, though the miniature portraiture tradition might provide a precedent for reading them as portraits. However, in contradistinction to miniature portraits, in Manley’s deadly delicious series each image gives the impression that it could be turned through 360 degrees and continue to work. This impression is, I think, reinforced by the horizontal ‘flatbed’ orientation of a virus seen through a microscope, the circular supports of the paintings already having supplied the cue to interpret them as petri dishes or lenses.

David Manley, DDA 5 - Swine Flu. Acrylic on Aluminium, 90 cm d.

David Manley, DDA 5 – Swine Flu. Acrylic on Aluminium, 90 cm d. Image by courtesy of the artist

DDA 5 Swine Flu is a diabolical image of coals in an eternal fire. It looks like what I imagine Swine Flu might feel like, not something I want to test! Just as I wouldn’t want to think of this image as a “point of contact” with the represented, as one might have done with a Byzantine icon.  Nevertheless, icons were images of the invisible and surely this painting is also an image of something that is invisible, at least to the naked eye. Except, strictly speaking, the source material for each paintings is already an image, a picture of a microscopic event, which is then flattened out and simplified, or ‘abstracted’ but not beyond recognition for a scientist familiar with the given virus. The colours however, are entirely the artist’s invention. One type of electron microscope operates only in black and white, Manley explains, adding that because the conventions around coloration remain somewhat open ended  “I took a decision right from the start that in this respect I had ‘carte blanche’ and have operated accordingly”.

David Manley, DDA 6 Sin Nombre , Acrylic on Aluminium, 90 cm. d.

David Manley, DDA 6 Sin Nombre , Acrylic on Aluminium, 90 cm. d. Image by courtesy of the artist

In DDA 6 Sin Nombre, the colours are rich blues, reds, ochres, and copper, their crisp edges contrasting with diffused colours in the blue ground, some of which may have been spray painted. And the ‘character’ of this painting (perhaps they are portraits after all) is quite different to The others. This one is calmer, cooler, less frantic than DDA 5 Swine Flu and softer than DDA 8 Measles.

I am interested in the fact that the source images are available to the artist only as a result of technology, and in the implied conflation here of art and technology. The words ‘art’ (‘techne’) and ‘technology’ share the same etymological root, surely. Yet the painterly style suggests ‘free play’, which may be akin to a more primitive approach, often in our thinking the opposite of the technological. In this respect I am reminded of the recent article in the White Review, Techno-Primitivism by Vanessa Hodgkinson and David Trotter, discussing a primitivism mediated by technology in the abstract paintings of Vanessa Hodgkinson and the writing of D H Lawrence.

DDA 8 - Measles . Acrylic on Aluminium, 49 cm. d.

DDA 8 – Measles . Acrylic on Aluminium, 49 cm. d. Image by courtesy of the artist

It may be the case that in a technological society an artist cannot not respond to technology in some way, even if that response is an unconscious one. David Manley is very conscious of the interplay between technology and the handmade that these paintings celebrate.  Jacques Ellul argued that modern art is an imitation of technology or a compensation for it.  The deadly delicious series seems to have elements of both.

David Manley, Deadly Delicious, is showing at Tarpey Gallery until 31 August


9 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Absolutely brilliant and enlightening review of this show Andy. I’m very attracted by Manley’s tondos despite their rather macabre source of inspiration – thanks for sharing…


    August 4, 2013 at 4:34 am

  2. Great review. Fascinating series.
    These pieces and your observations remind me of one of the Mass Media principles I introduced to my students; when a new form of Mass Media shows up there is impact on other media. The codes & conventions and the media content passes back & forth. The one medium tries to absorb or re-interpret another medium. The photograph starts out imitating the formal style of portrait & landscape paintings , before expanding into its own conventions. Eventually, painters turn to more abstract visions or photo-realism in response to photography.


    August 8, 2013 at 12:15 am

    • Thanks for commenting, I like those connections, I wonder whether art as a whole might be said to imitate or compensate for technology and painting in particular might also be seen as either an imitation or reaction to those specific technologies of photography and digital media (?)

      Andy Parkinson

      August 12, 2013 at 7:07 am

  3. A very good review of this art, and great reproductions. Thankyou. The shift from technologically derived images to art (with or without a message) delights me, and I thank you for bringing this to our attention. Tony


    August 8, 2013 at 12:22 am

    • Thank you Tony. Interesting that you introduce the notion of “message”. I suspect that David Manley’s painting might be “without message” but not “without meaning”, though Jacques Ellul argued that ‘modern art’, in its imitation or compensation for technology demonstrates loss of “subject” and loss of “meaning”, for him a characteristic of the technological society.

      Andy Parkinson

      August 12, 2013 at 7:16 am

      • Hi, again. You’re right to divide message and meaning and one must avoid about being precious about the medium. Perhaps that is what Ellul means when he says modern art has lost both subject and meaning. I look at technologically derived pictures up to eight hours a day trying to do more than just describe – to interpret. Technology is simply a technique like any other with which to derive an image with meaning. The manner in which the artist manipulates his message inside the medium; to jump from craft to art – this is what divides a picture acquired to match the decor from one that strikes a chord – one with a meaning for the viewer. Cheers, Tony


        August 12, 2013 at 12:21 pm

      • One of the other Mass media principles – “All Mass Media contains intended and unintended messages.” That is why Tony can take an x-ray and re-imagine it with a new message. He sees the unintended message and by using it as content for a new digital composition he makes the unintentional the intended. Manley does similar conversion by creating paintings based on visual images of viruses. They are working in different artistic media, but the process is the same.
        I found the line between Art Media and Mass Media is very thin. When I was still teaching I would end up borrowing some of my wife’s Art class resources for my Media Literacy class because of the over-lap. One resource that really brought this connection home is the documentary, “How Art Changed the World”.


        August 12, 2013 at 3:56 pm

  4. […] have also benefitted enormously with this show from Andy Parkinson’s very thoughtful review.  Its good to have the opportunity to read what someone else thinks about your work – […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: