Michael Manning

Michael Manning In Dialogue with Steven Cox 

Steven Cox: Your works refuse to contain noticeable human errors and flaws commonly found within gestural abstract paintings, but in fact own rather precise textural qualities associated with this genre of painting. Upon close inspection, viewers will realize they are not visually deconstructing a traditional painting that is formed by the use of wet and malleable paint, but rather a work that has been digitally planned and 3D printed. Your works therefore imitate painting, or perhaps parody painting by the works themselves closely mimicking the material qualities of paint. Overall, I find it interesting that your works artificially simulate painting.

With this in mind, your works actually encourage the viewer to question how they should interpret digital expressionism. To begin, what are your thoughts on the crossover between virtual vs. real painting? Do you consider one as being any more “real” than the other?

Michael Manning: A central principle to my practice that I am constantly dealing with is that I do not believe in the dichotomy of real vs. virtual or digital vs. analog etc. One of the main conceptual foundations of these paintings is this idea of defying the binary schema. I think the works and mark making is absolutely expressionist and more importantly I think it represents a hybridized expression in which I am interpreted by software, hardware and a third party producer.

My work tries to give form to the perpetual dialogue we are in with technology, the tension that arises from being constantly mediated in all forms of communication and expression. I see these forms of mediation not as a constraint or alienating but as augmentations to ourselves and our perceptions and thus I try to push them as far as I can to create something new, to live and create in ways we have never been able to before.

SC: By solely utilizing modern digital technologies, do you consider all forms of digital communication as expressionistic?  Also, do you become frustrated when you encounter both creative and expressionistic limitations by being so dependent on digital technologies? Or are these limitations something you aim to fully embrace and work with/against?

MM: Yes, I think regardless of digital or analog if we are discussing communication it is inherently expressionistic. I think sometimes I am frustrated by the immediacy of paint on canvas, but more often than not I find the endless options of programs and the space inside my computer and depths of the internet to be a bit daunting. You can make whatever you want with whatever you want using whatever content you want. That can be a lot to contemplate. When it comes to the specific limitations of the painting programs I use, I am inspired by their limitations and they are certainly self imposed limitations that I use as ways to be more creative. I think outside limitations, such restrictions force artists to be better. I think nothing articulates this better than watching an early film by a now successful Hollywood director, they were once forced by studios to do certain things as opposed to the films they make later in their careers when they have all the money, effects, etc. they could ever want. The films under studio restriction are always better, more concise, less indulgent and more refined.

SC: Your exhibition ‘And Alterations’ at Last Resort Gallery in Copenhagen concerned lettuces and the layering of history connected to the modification of seeds and plants through time. The concept itself highlighted how seeds gradually become altered, distorted or modified whilst being reproduced. Though on a broader basis your exhibition simultaneously highlighted a similar type of distortion and modification more specifically related to painting…

MM: I think more than highlighting the way painting has mutated in an analogous way to agricultural products or seeds, I was interested in the need for active participants in both spheres to preserve, re-assert or guide their respective histories. I was particularly fascinated with the practice of seed-saving in which small scale seed farmers are re-introducing heirloom varieties into circulation and production not from the perspective of fetishizing “the good old days” but rather by introducing genetic variety that had been lost in large scale seed production.

To me this mind-set is very important for it mirrors the type of active participation we see in our cultural dialogue on a daily basis but on the smallest of scales. I am interested in the way we have through decentralized media and publishing platforms the ability to control our history very actively.

I’m not particularly interested in the contemporary dialogue of painting, for the most part I use painting and these weird hybrid objects of paintings I make as a means to advance more complex ideas about our contemporary experience.

SC: I feel that your digitally printed works act as a catalyst for an alternative redirecting of contemporary painting, and if anything your printed works showcase what painting could be within the digital age. Painting and experience are both connected; therefore these works must be created with awareness to furthering or guiding the medium of painting itself.

With this in mind, how can you say that you are not particularly interested in the contemporary dialogue of painting when your printed paintings in fact challenge this very dialogue?

MM: I am part of the conversation; I just don’t consider it my focus. I personally can’t function as a medium specific artist, so I don’t like to approach work in a way that is medium specific. I am interested in concepts that are applicable through all the media I am working with and maintain relevance whether expressed through painting, video, sculpture, website or whatever else.

SC: Your website 100paintings.gallery is a website designed to generate new versions of your paintings at random. By simply clicking refresh, the viewer can create a unique composition and download an image of these new works for keeping and sharing. I find it fascinating, for this piece of coding can generate over 9 billion works. It would be impossible to view every single combination. Do you find it interesting that there are versions of these digital paintings that others may see, but not yourself? Is there a back-end to this program where these combinations are kept and stored as image files?

MM: I made 100 paintings that were meant to be separated into 5 different layers. The site functions by randomly pulling 1 out of 20 paintings for each of the 5 layers and then combining them into the final image. The site is meant to explore the continued tension between myself and the computer in my process.

SC: I guess this website could also be considered a sketchbook of sorts for it has the potential to aid in the superfast genesis of new combinations that could potentially be turned into physical paintings. Have you considered utilizing this coding process in the creation of new physical works within the studio?

MM: No, I haven’t. To me it is it’s own animal. I think it would feel compromising to begin using it as a way to create new physical works. I had toyed with the idea of creating a print function in which users would be able to mail themselves a free postcard of a painting generated by the site, but that has yet to materialize.

SC: I also believe that Cura has released a publication of your work similarly titled ‘100 Paintings’, can you tell me a little about this publication?

MM: The book is a collection of 100 paintings I completed between 2010-2015. It is comprised of four different series of paintings: iPhone, Microsoft Store, Sheryl Crow Pandora, and Wild Fusion with 25 paintings from each series. There are essays on each series written by Brian Droitcour, Gene McHugh, Peter J. Amdam, and an interview between myself and the editor of the book Lucy Chinen. The book was designed by Simon Whybray.

SC: It is inevitable for painting as a discipline to warp and change through time, what are your thoughts on the evolution of painting? Do you think of traditional painting methods as being/becoming obsolete? And, where do you envisage painting being in say 10 years from now?

MM: I don’t think traditional painting techniques are obsolete, but personally I find them alien and hard to relate to, and I think that sentiment will only grow exponentially with future generations. I think most contemporary painting is misguided and quite horrible, but then again a lot of my favorite artists are traditional painters working now. I have a lot of respect for artist’s who have severe conviction and honesty in their work and I find that in people like Sam Mckinniss or Jim Thorell who are both traditional painters.

Unfortunately I think painting will probably be guided by the market and this horrible practice of using traditional painting techniques to mimic photoshop and other digital aesthetics will only getting increasingly out of hand. The market wants traditional techniques and contemporary aesthetics and it usually gets what it wants.

SC: In relation to artists being affected by the art market, you stated in a recent press release that apparently artists today solely wish to be corporations, start-ups and brands. What are your thoughts on the commodification of artists today?

MM: That press release statement is really much more about a trend in art practices to use branding, faux corporate techniques and aesthetics as a facile critique of our contemporary global capitalist status quo instead of making work that is ACTUALLY political or exists in stark opposition to these capitalist dilemmas. Artists, in a misguided effort to be relevant, have professionalized in ways that compromise the entire conceptual basis of their critiques of capitalism. It has become all too commonplace for artists to mimic or inhabit the form of the oppressive institutional structure they are trying to critique as opposed to presenting freaked out alternatives or genuinely provocative/politically engaged works that through their very creation act as opposition to these institutions.

People argue that this is a more nuanced way to explore how complex the position of critique is right now, mirroring how society and the artist are complicit in that which is being critiqued, but I think the novelty of this wore off about 5 years ago. A great example of someone who is making truly weird, freaky art that is politically engaged and does not simply mimic the aesthetic of the critiqued is Josh Kline. He is creating work that is fucking weeeeiiiiiird, entirely new (that is to say it does not rely on previous political art historical genres) and relevant to the capitalist experience of NOW.

As for commodification I don’t really believe in using that word in an art context. It is so misused by critics, artists, writers and curators it’s fucking insane. I don’t believe there is commodification of much of anything in art; the very premise of a commodity is that it is interchangeable and its origin/method of production is irrelevant. I think that if anything art is following the consumer market in that commodity markets are being disrupted and re-interpreted by waves of trendy/neo-liberal consumer strategies like single-origin, fair trade etc. etc. Coffee is no longer interchangeable with all other coffee, now we require backstories, ethical production and trade policies etc. Art functions in much the same way. In the most cynical of views I’d say that artists function much more like specialized securities than commodities within the market. Collectors put us into categories, use mediums and backgrounds as ways to diversify their collections, the American Abstract Painter, The European Conceptualist, The British Political Artist, and The Japanese Pop Sculptor etc. etc..

SC: In the past, you would spend time at local Microsoft stores making paintings using Fresh Paint on tester touch screen computers. Once completed, you would then email these images to yourself. I am curious to know if you have fully stopped this process? And if you have, what were your reasons for you stopping? Were you becoming too recognized spending time there?

MM: For the most part I have stopped. When I happen to be at a mall I will stop by and do a painting, that’s about it. When I was doing this on a consistent basis I did get recognized, but it wasn’t a problem, the store employees were super excited about what I was doing. I stopped because I got bored. I made these works for a little over a year and to me it just felt like I had explored it thoroughly.

SC: I am aware that you are in employment outside of the studio; do you feel that by working a job it gives you headspace and a reasonable amount distance from your work so you can reflect upon your art work in a more discerning manner?

MM: Very simply it allows me to give zero fucks about the convoluted sphere of insanity that is the art world. When I first started making work I was working and I had no intention or ambition to really exhibit or work with galleries etc. and it allowed me a freedom that I think translated into some of the best work I have made. I don’t really ever want distance from my own work I really just want distance from everyone else’s. I think the problem I ran into personally was when I took time off work to focus on art, I then found myself wrapped up in ridiculous market issues, gallerist dramas, dealer hype and all other sorts of ancillary problems that have nothing to do with art and this really negatively impacted my work and mental health. The art world is filled with the worst kind of social climbers, vampires and really just a whole bunch of people standing around contributing nothing but expecting to be praised for it. After a while it really got to me and I realized I was building my career, my social interactions and my life around an industry/group of people I really didn’t enjoy being around so I removed myself from it and went back to work. I’m much happier now lol.

SC: When in your studio, can you tell me about your routine?

MM: I have two studio set ups really, one at home in my bedroom in Venice Beach and one in Downtown LA which is an actual art studio in the traditional sense. I do most of my work at home in Venice on my computer. I do all my painting, videos, emails, writing etc. there. These days I only really make work when I feel excited about doing so. To an outsider I imagine it is quite boring, it is mostly me trading between coffee, cigarettes, joints and my weed vape running my finger across my touch screen computer monitor smearing fake paint together in programs until I think it is done. To me it is a lot of fun. Even though my practice is mostly based on the computer I really am more productive when the weather is good. I have a set of huge French doors that open off my room and I leave them open into my backyard I play music way too loud, hang with my cat and paint. It’s simple and pleasant.

I typically use my studio downtown for printing canvases, finishing them with acrylic, hanging works and doing studio visits. I share a studio with Emanuel Rohss a lovely Swedish artist I have known for a few years now and recently Zane Lewis just moved in, we have a nice little set up in a large warehouse space by the Staples Center. I don’t go there much, but it is nice to have a place to do weird experiments and to hang works for collectors and galleries to see.

SC: Within your exhibition ‘No Rain, No Rainbows’, at Gavlak Gallery Palm Beach, your 3D printed paintings further explored disparity by consciously layering the layers in more noticeably opposing fashions. The colours and textures fail to align, perhaps furthering your interest in exploring overlaps associated with virtual vs. real. When viewing, I felt that these particular works showed signs of development for they appeared even more digital and computer like. With the topic of evolution still in mind, I am interested to know how much time is invested in researching and developing digital programs so to continuously advance the execution of your 3D printed paintings?

MM: I don’t invest any time into developing products, software or hardware for my work. I research heavily, but I only use applications and technologies that are available on mass to consumers. This is a very important part of my practice. I create work using consumer technologies as a way of self-imposing limitations on the work and then being forced to be expressive within those limitations. I am also more interested in my work being directly connected to the potential of cultural creation available to the public. My work does not require professional resources or extreme budgets; anyone with a laptop, an Internet connection and a PayPal account can make my work.

SC: In your own words, can you give a brief overview of your solo exhibition I Hate Mondays at Gallery Mon Cheri, Brussels?

MM: The show consisted of primarily video works, with a few paintings. The show was conceptually based around my personal experience of working as a full time artist over the past year. It was about trying to explore more interesting and complicated notions of the artist as a professional practitioner than the hackneyed artist as brand, corporation, start up or whatever other nonsensical business analogy the MFA privileged can fein a critical stance on these days. It featured DIY aesthetics, a stuffed animal, oranges, a No Doubt music video and lots of colors.

SC: Within this exhibition, your work Enzymatic Aloe Tonic, 2016, featured a plush panda bear gripping a small-scale painting whilst lying in a hammock. This hammock also acted as a divider of sorts that made the viewer walk under each support as they walked around the gallery space. Is the plush bear metaphorical? Through this work were you aiming to disrupt the viewer’s common routine of circling the gallery space? Furthermore, can you please discuss this work for me…

MM: The bear is a self-portrait. The entire show was meant to be an interpretation of my backyard/Venice studio environment in a very weird way and the tent is supposed to be my bedroom. My bedroom in Venice is an old detached garage in the back of a bungalow and it is in really bad shape so we always joke that I basically live in a really sturdy tent, so that’s where it came from lol. Every time I do a show I spend a lot of effort trying to use the architecture of the space and my installation to create an experience for the viewer that is significantly unique to viewing the show in person. Basically I want there to be an element of the show in the way you experience that can’t really be replicated by looking at the documentation images. You will understand the idea, but you won’t get the experience.

To me it is incredibly important that if you are mounting an exhibition in post-documentation obsessed art world that the experience of viewing the exhibition in person has to resonate in a way that the online images could never. So, yes, the tent was very purposefully meant to segment the show and create tension with how the viewer navigated the space.

SC: What are you currently working on in your studio? Do you have additional exhibitions planned for 2016?

MM: Right now I am starting some new works with a plotter machine. It is a small interpretation of a pen plotter, but it is freestanding and can be placed on any surface to print. It also works with any media that fits into its penholder so I am trying out a number of things from oil sticks to pastels to graffiti markers. It uses vector file and can only print about 8.5 x 11 inches so right now I am trying out some thing were I do large patterned paintings and also breaking up large image files into smaller components and then building them back up using the machine. I am pretty excited about it. I really love the 3D printed paintings I have been making, but they are produced very far away from me and they take a long time to make, so my ability to try new things, and create an iterative process is very difficult. It is nice to be working with something where I have immediate feedback and I can make mistakes and adjust immediately.

Michael Manning 

Images Courtesy of Michael Manning, Moncheri Brussels and Last Resort Gallery