Whole in two

William Manning’s abstract continuum
By KEN GREENLEAF  |  August 5, 2008

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THE WATER IS WIDE #29 sharp-edged but loose.

The composer Virgil Thompson, characterizing Balinese gamelan music for a Western audience, said that all the gamelan orchestras and pieces were related, joining an ongoing cosmic “music of the spheres.” Individual pieces and players may come and go, but the music is always exists somewhere in the universe.

William Manning: From Here To Eternitime
Jameson Gallery, 305 Commercial Street, Portland, 207.772.5522, through August 30, 2008; University of New England Gallery of Art, Portland, 207.221.4499, through September 7, 2008.
Looking at a large show, or in this case a pair of shows, of abstract painter William Manning’s work is a little like that. It’s as if Bill Manning and his work are a small, coherent universe of its own that exists somewhere, and periodically others get to visit it for a while. Two current shows, ongoing at the Jameson Gallery and UNE, present a pretty big slice of that universe — close to a hundred pieces.

The show at the University of New England Gallery of Art covers two distinct periods in Manning’s career, from the early 1960s to about 1979 and from 2004 to 2007, with nearly 50 paintings. The show at the Jameson consists mostly of free-standing works produced in the 1980s and ’90s.

These shows demonstrate Manning’s remarkable consistency over the years. His work has evolved, but the foundation he laid for his visual language 40 years ago has remained the organizing principle behind everything he is showing today.

In his earlier paintings, Manning tended toward light yellows, blues, and pale greens, with organic shapes and dark lines that have an improvisational feel. The colors are set in a pictorial structure of loose shapes set off against hard lines or squares, using what Hans Hofmann called ‘push/pull,’ color relationships that produce the illusion of space. Depending on their relative tone, hue, and apparent temperature, certain colors will appear to advance or recede from the viewer. Manning employs this effect in such a way that his works feel orderly even although they at first appear chaotic.

Manning’s “standing paintings” (his term) at Jameson add a layer of complexity to his mix of color and shape. These pieces are mostly vertical, with columns and rectangular planes assembled to act as supports for areas of paint. Edges of planes are painted various colors and act as stripes. Sometimes different-size panels are attached together so that their edges become a collection of stripes with contrasting colors. Other panels are attached the sides of tall square columns, leaving a space that is partly hidden unless viewed from head-on.

These works are more complex than the early paintings and more playful than the later ones. Manning uses color as his primary pictorial language; color relationships are everything in his work. In these pieces those relationships change as you walk around them. You have one painting at one view and quite another a few steps later.

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