In this interview, painter Katherine Bradford talks with painter JJ Manford. Manford makes paintings that are visionary, ecstatic and luminous. The two talk about his practice, fatherhood and the intersection of art and life.
Katherine Bradford: When I first saw your paintings several years ago they were small and dark and abstract. Your recent show at Freight & Volume had large, luminous paintings, fantastically colored and loaded with imagery from the natural world. Could you talk about what drove you to this change in your work ?
JJ Manford: I actually learned something in grad school, for one thing! Really, I had a break through semester: for several years, I was trying to figure out how I wanted to paint with those small abstract paintings, and hadn’t thought much about their significance. I think right before I met you, I was painting these landscapes with trains in them that were heavily influenced by my time in Chicago, specifically my exposure to the work of Roger Brown, Joseph Yoakum, and Martin Ramirez’, but I had hit a roadblock in terms of how I wanted to paint. Through the abstract paintings, I wanted to bring back this figuration, but hadn’t figured out how. Then this Golden Semester came along, in which Carrie Moyer fought for us to break free from our perpetual adulation of mid 20th century painting. I took color theory with Sandy Wurmfeld. Drew Beattie convinced me to paint large, and ‘from my elbow’, as painters love to say. I embraced transparency, which necessitates a thinness of paint application that I had always had an issue with in my own work, until I discovered that I could compensate for that feeling if I just built up my ground with successive layers of gesso. The luminosity that transparency offers was the solution to the tone I was trying to achieve in my previous landscapes.
KB: When you say you wanted to achieve “a tone” in your paintings what exactly do you mean ? The “tone” of a painting is so important and I don’t see it discussed enough.
JM: As a painter, I am not as interested in ideas of flatness and depth, as I am in the alchemical potential of paint, and its transmutation into a conductor of a kind of bioluminescence; how can you take an inert substance and make it appear alive and mysterious?
KB: Peter Frank in the Huffington Post linked your work to a “new visionary art” and Daniel Gauss in Arte Fuse wrote that you are following the American transcendentalist tradition of Charles Burchfield and Arthur Dove. Is this about where you’d locate your work ? ”
JM: Yes and no. I was very pleased with those writers’ contextualisation of my work, as they accurately cited several of my favorite artists, the general ‘visionary’ and transcendental ethos that attracts me to them – specifically their attunement to animals, nature, and the spirit. I am hesitant, however, to subscribe to any tradition since we live in a much more polymorphous art world now. Although I feel a kinship with the American transcendentalists, and the like-minded artists both those articles cited, I would like to retain the flexibility to bring seemingly discordant ideologies and artistic sources into my work.
KB: Yes, I can see you doing just that in a painting such as The Near Martyrdom of Saint Manford the Painter, from 2011, where the central figure looks like a stain that you seem to have cajoled into a standing clothed figure. Did you find this image through the process of laying on the paint? Why the Martyrdom title ?
The Near Martyrdom of Saint Manford The Painter, 2011, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 82 x 72 inches
JM: That was a real turning point painting that launched me headfirst back into figuration. I had done two significant paintings prior, Sunrise, Sunset and Nan and Byron that marked a real return to landscape, but neither had the figure. After I lay down a monochromatic underpainting of radiant magenta, I lay the canvas flat – as I do all my paintings – and danced around it for about forty five minutes with four different buckets of paint and a spray bottle until I was satisfied. I remember feeling really giddy, as I marched upstairs to grab Peter Park and show him what I had done; I had either killed the cat or reinvented the wheel, I wasn’t sure which, but the process felt so exhilarating. It wasn’t an accident, the figure, it came from a sketch I made beforehand of a sort of ‘hanged man’ that was suppose to represent me as a sort of pictogram of me as a painter. It’s a total allegory painting and I made it right after watching Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and thinking about the futility of being a painter of canvases in this day and age; the pictogram-me is actually being hung mid-way through the act of painting. I see the artwork, itself, as depicting more of a psychological state of either coming out of, or into ‘being’ then a fully formed depiction. My intention was to paint the figure in the same exact way as the landscape, in one stream of consciousness mass of strokes.
KB: What a marvelous description – dancing around with four different buckets of paint and feeling giddy at the end. This seems totally apt for a painter of the ecstatic. Sometimes when I paint well I feel a kind of painter’s high and I’m always glad it’s work induced and not drug induced. Is this the only painting where you’ve had this feeling when you’re finished ?
JM: I’ve had that feeling at that stage of a painting ever since I painted the Martyrdom, but that was the very first time – so probably the best. Starting a painting in that way provides the perfect amount of spontaneity to counter the slowed down precision oriented process with which I finish the paintings. It is a very forgiving process, and so far I haven’t too often found an accident that I can’t make happy.
KB: You recently married fellow painter Elisa Soliven and just had a new baby boy. I see a lot of celebratory gusto in these new paintings – Deep Field, Manford and Manu on the Hill, and Stargazing and the Milky Way.
JM: Thank you, Kathy, I’m glad you see the works as celebratory! For the record, those paintings were all made before Jonas was born, but the nervous thrill of anticipation was definitely there; Stargazing and Deep Field were made around the same time. Deep Field came together more quickly; it was the type of painting you never intend to make but just comes about naturally because the wheels are greased. I refer to it as my ‘cosmic conception’ painting, and it depicts two photographic orbs of my mother and father as 9-year olds connected by an iridescent, radiant umbilical-like chord, floating in outer space. So, that was definitely a baby-on-the brain painting, in retrospect, and a celebratory one at that! Stargazing, which is largely about self-generated eroticism, as a metaphor for the solitary studio practice, and Manford and Manu on the Hill, which is about a kind of psychic nomadism, are probably more about me working through my feelings about becoming a father. I remember reading Night Studio by Musa Meyer and she succeeded in sounding the alarm for me, you could say.
Deep Field, 2013, acrylic, collage, and spray paint on canvas, 84 x 84 inches
Stargazing and The Milky Way, 2013, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 84 x 84 inches
Manford and Manu on the Hill, 2014, acrylic, oil, and spray paint on canvas, 72 x 69 inches
KB: The alarm being that she felt neglected by her father,the painter Philip Guston, and you didn’t want to be that kind of parent or husband ?
JM: Yes, although i’ll preface that by saying that I was not legitimately concerned that I would neglect Jonas and Elisa, for my studio, it was more about preparing for the destabilization of parenthood and acknowledging my patterns. Elisa has similar patterns; art-making has got us through some difficult times, and the studio has been like a familiar friend during times of instability. I have a strong internal world, so – with regards to my loved ones – my concern has always been to remain present. Now that Jonas is fully in the world, it has become clear and incomprehensible that life is somehow separate from art, and so it has become a less relevant concern, for me. I think that gets at what is really the subject of my paintings: destabilization, as a zone for self-discovery, and the embrace of the unfamiliar. That is also what the ‘psychedelic’ represents for me.
KB: Aside from the imagery, these three paintings seem to get their punch from the fact you paid a lot of attention to a strong sense of light while using vivid colors. You started introducing fluorescent day glo paint into your work, something those luminous painters who are now dead would be very envious of since it wasn’t yet invented when they worked. Is this an idea you picked up from your contemporaries?
JJ: I don’t know if those dead visionaries I look towards would warm to fluorescent pigments; so many of them were purists, specializing in a sort of divine magic. Mine is more of the carnival variety. I am an 80s child, and so the use of fluorescent pigments feels like second nature; they are part of my visual culture. I think what initially drove me to bring them into my work was also the contrarian in me: “these are the paints you’re not supposed to use” for all the reasons why I love to use them. Their instantaneous color effect makes me think of the “cheap trick” aspect of magic, which implies a skepticism that I feel is so contemporary. In other words, I take full advantage of the rather literal analogy of a chemically or synthetically produced color suggesting a chemical, or supernatural reaction.
KB: What interests you now about the contemporary art scene ? I know you and Elisa have curated shows and have run a gallery out of your Bushwick studio. As far as artists go who do you follow ?
JM: What interests me about the contemporary art scene is its lawlessness, and all conservative modes of working have lost their argument for supremacy. Not everyone seems comfortable with their apparent freedom, but I love watching the ones that are (comfortable) run with it. I can say with much optimism that there are too many to mention, but some of the stand-outs (and this list could have dozens of permutations) for me lately are: Brian Wood, Joanne Greenbaum, Peter Acheson, Gina Beavers, Chris Martin, EJ Hauser, Mike Cloud, Michael Berryhill, Erik Den Breejen, Carl Ostendarp, Paul DeMuro, and a fellow painter of the ecstatic, Katherine Bradford.