David Manley, Deadly Delicious at Tarpey Gallery
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”.
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.
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”.
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.
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
Written by Andy Parkinson
August 1, 2013 at 3:32 pm
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