So pleased to share the work of New York-based artist Christopher Manning, who balances gigs as an exhibition coordinator and teacher while still making an impressive amount of stunning work. He works on his small-scale pieces, which combined Polaroid photography, collage, painting, and sculpture -- sometimes dozens at a time. He will also have a selection of over twenty Polaroid works exhibited at The Impossible Project Laboratory in Berlin, opening on November 17!
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Can you tell me about yourself?
My name is Christopher Edward Manning. I was born on May 3, 1983 in Mount Kisco, NY. I live and work in Yorktown Heights, NY. I am also the Exhibitions Coordinator at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, CT and I teach 3D Design, Painting and Contemporary Sculpture at Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY. I received my BFA from Manhattanville College and MFA from SUNY New Paltz.
What first interested you in art?
Growing up my entire house was a studio. My Mother is an artist and art teacher so no room was off limits to experiments. But most of all I remember watching my Mother weave. We had a room at the end of the hall in our raised ranch house with a loom in it, so most naturally we called it “The Loom Room”. And it did just that, it dominated the room, or at least for my small stature this beautiful wooden structure was the room, it’s why the room existed. As I played with my GI Joes, I would watch as she would spend hours just making. Watching those repetitive actions, feeling and smelling the soft spools of wool, I was hooked on process from the beginning.
We took trips down to NYC to check out the museums regularly. That’s probably the reason as a 8 year old I asked for a Piet Mondrian poster in my room paired with a David Hockney above it. I could tell you more about Matisse and Cezanne at that point than basic math. But it was Yves Klein’s 1961 Blue Monochrome at MoMa that got the cogs moving. I was amazed and frustrated that something so seemingly simple could possess such unlimited meaning to it’s viewers. It was that initial curiosity in the making combined with what art could communicate and physically be that started it all.
When or how did you first get started creating?
I always made things. Drawings, paintings, small collages, I used to charge kids in middle school to draw all over their binders.
Although in high school the making mostly stopped as I began to have a successful track and field career, the 100m dash was my specialty. But it was at Hartwick College when I realized I wasn’t going to be the next Michael Johnson (now let’s say Usain Bolt) combined with nagging hip and hamstring injuries, I let running take the back seat.
Around this time I transferred to Manhattanville College, I was studying psychology and sociology with intentions of going to med school afterwards. But as in all liberal arts schools, I had to satisfy my arts requirement. So I took a drawing class with the artist and educator Randy Williams. And my life changed completely.
After that, I took painting, then printmaking, then another drawing class and on and on, I was hooked. Naturally, the second semester of my Junior year, I switched majors completely to art and somehow graduated on time. From there I continued my studies, getting my MFA in Painting and Drawing from SUNY New Paltz.
But it was that one drawing class with Randy Williams, who is now a friend, mentor and colleague that reignited the creative atmosphere I experienced in my childhood. There were no limits, it was technically drawing but it was more about art, studio, literature, culture, music and life. It was everything I wanted to explore with psychology in a more tangible form.
In all of your work, but especially in Polaroids and Mediums, I'm really taken with your attention to material and texture. How do you get started on a piece? Do you work on a number at a time?
I work on anywhere between thirty to sixty pieces of each series simultaneously. So often hundreds of works are going on at the same time. These works are crafted in shallow wooden boxes or trays that I make and placed in a series of shelves used as a drying rack system constructed in my studio. The large quantities and juxtapositions while in process allow for a fluidity of physical labor, technique, material and ideas while in creation.
This system also allows for errors, which are key to my process. If I’m working on thirty pieces, there are about thirty more that aren’t working for me. But these explorations allow for a needed vulnerability that builds in successive layers. Without these mistakes or pitfalls along the way, works don’t feel right. I see people in the same way, layers make them interesting and tell their tale, both positive, negative and the in between.
So each work has it’s own tectonic lineage, often pieces will be put together to cover previous actions or mid process a piece is completely deconstructed, excavating the surface to reveal what is unseen creating several new explorations from the single entity. Works are constantly fluctuating between life, death and rebirth. These physical actions are themes that conceptually I enjoy exploring.
Although before any of this can happen, there does need to be a blank page, raw material or in the case of Polaroids, a photo to start from. This is often the most difficult part and exactly why I keep a library of failed drawings, experiments, discarded fragments of completed works, found objects, a compulsive collection of vintage books, magazines and photos in addition to drawers upon drawers of unused or mid process Polaroids in my studio.
I find beginnings daunting so I make sure to have a lot of them available. I also keep two running sketchbooks, one a Moleskin for simple sketches, written ideas or poetry and a book of collages and drawings for working out material concerns, loose ideas or just warming up. These are to get momentum going or to use a boxing analogy doing your “footwork”. Prepping for the main fight.
With that being said Mediums generally start from a simple piece of hand cut 14 x 11” acid free blotter paper (I just like the texture, durability, absorption and it also tears very well for my needs). Polaroids begin on my travels, capturing and cataloging moments of life for later reassessment.
What is your studio like?
My studio is an unheated double bay garage that I converted at home in Yorktown Heights, NY. It’s fairly cold in the winter so bundling up in layers and boots is essential, thick socks are also a quality investment. In the Spring, Summer and a good part of Fall I work with the doors open, there are acres of protected wetlands behind my house so nature just sort of flows in and the elements become part of the work. Often I’ll bring works outside, in particular my chandeliers, for a few seasons to let them weather or see what nature and chance can do to them that perhaps I may not.
The studio is split down the middle into two sections. One half is dedicated to wall based works production while other half is a work shop/bench area where I create my sculptures and do all carpentry.
Despite being packed to the brim with materials and work, I remain vey organized. Since my process tends to be quite messy this organization and keeping the place clean is essential. That’s something I learned while working for the artist Tom Sachs in NYC. For those of you who know, “Always Be Knolling” is a constant ethos, look up Tom Sachs’ Ten Bullets studio manual if you don’t. But essentially I took that experience, structure and philosophy of working in Tom’s studio and applied certain practices to my own. I’ve found that it helps being disciplined and efficient when in the studio.
How much time do you typically spend there?
I’m fairly busy all the time between working at The Aldrich full time, teaching at Manhattanville at night, showing and doing my own studio work while maintaining a healthy relationship, family and friends. So time is precious. I generally make sure I’m in the studio at least 8-12 hours a week actually producing work. This is in addition to all office based studio work of archiving, website updates, applying to shows, emails, etc.
Getting into a solid routine helps me get the most work done in this amount of time. Work/Teach, come home, go running, eat dinner/watch Jeopardy, rest/do nothing art related for 30-60 min and the hit the studio for the remainder of the night which typically ends around 11:30 PM if I want to get anything close to the right amount of sleep but often extends past midnight if I’m on a roll. Get up and repeat. Caffeinate as necessary.
Where do you find your source material?
Generally I find my materials at four kinds of places: used book shops, hardware stores, museum/studio scraps or found in nature (I’m a hiker, so I come across some interesting things from time to time on a trail). My own photos or Polaroids are also considered in this sense, so moments captured in life can be considered source material once they return to the studio in tangible form. I guess when you see something, there is a magnetic moment you know you’ll potentially use that object, photo, material or tool. I collect those things.
I also have a book collecting problem. I say problem because I’m capping my book collection at the current number, whatever that three to four digit number may be…Until I use some of the books in my work, I’m not letting myself buy more. With that being said, I collect far too much material in general but systematize it to look like I collect rationally or at least in a respectable compulsive sense.
My collection consists mainly of vintage art history books but extends into old found photographs, manuals, 19th century diagrams, maps or ads, 60-70’s National Geographic, Life and Playboy magazines, the list goes on and on. Recently I was gifted a stack of vintage ArtNews magazines from 1950-70, very excited about these.
Can you describe a little bit about your process?
The first thing I do when I get into the studio is clean. I sweep, make sure my materials are stocked, organize, make lists, thumb through/cut out images, lay down pointless brushstrokes in my sketchbook and generally do some footwork while I look at what I’m surrounded by. I get ideas during this time and just jot them down or do minor tasks until I’m ready to dive in. From there I systematically work on bodies of work.
I keep a fairly organized To Do list of what needs to be accomplished in the studio, whether it be Mediums, then Polaroids, then Chandeliers, etc in that order. This process helps me stay focused and not get too sucked into NPR, which is typically on about 80% of the time in my studio. Once completed, I let intuition take over and bounce from idea to idea but the To Do list helps me get rolling. Or it possibly could just be the joyous feeling of crossing things out on said list. Either way, that’s how I get started.
Once in the more intuitive/exploratory stage, fragments tend to travel from individual work thresholds so scrap or excess from one series may migrate to another, images used in Polaroids find themselves in Mediums for example or Chandelier scraps may become the textural basis of a whole new Medium. Again this is why I work on many works simultaneously.
As previously mentioned, layers and the deconstruction of layers is essential to my process. Often my mood, the day, an image from a certain period of time dictates my layering process. Which brings up the question, do I feel like obscuring or do I feel like excavating?
My entire process is very autobiographical and those emotions, reflections and analyses are paramount to process. In particular with the Polaroids and many of my newer photographic based Mediums, I’m taking that moment of time into consideration. I think how it was and how it is now. I consider these instant fragments of tangible memory, a portrait of what has, will, and always form us, moments to be logged within a greater library of the collective unconscious.
But often looking back on an image, that moment was just the surface. There were feelings, expressions and images that need to be revealed or reflected upon with additional commentary. Consequently the process leads to excavating the exteriors of time, covering a vulnerability/moment needing to be forgotten or amending memory with footnotes.
My work largely deals with an excavation of the self, with interest in duality and fragmental storytelling through visual representation, conveying a sense of contemplation and nostalgia, thus allowing the viewer to connect on both a personal and aesthetic level. Set in a state of flux, each work presents a teetering of truths and lies, light versus dark, and all passages between life, death and rebirth. The cumulative narrative comes to represent a portrait of what shapes us, while embodying the deluge of all that was forgotten or surplus to existence.
This is achieved through the literal physical excavation of an image, which often includes cutting through caustic layers to reveal what is hidden beneath the surface. These images come to represent the undercurrents of what exists in the subterranean self.
When covering an image, the process is different while the range of media/mediums are similar. Thread is used to bind, carefully mending/stitching while obscuring. Acrylic paint or ink covers a landscape to make a once clear view opaque, while bonding the internal world with external. Often I’ll draw atop portraits or moments adding a gestural energy or hand written text to the work using oil based inks in a process similar to inking drypoint plate when printmaking.
Works are constantly manipulated. What was once excavated or covered will down the road (sometimes years later) be completely changed. Fluctuating between successful utilizable material to seemingly useless failed works. The simple fact is if it weren’t for errors within my process, I doubt progress would be possible. I thrive on it. In that manner, process mirrors life. Without falter, I doubt we would get very far or learn very much. I aim to show these aspects of life concurrently, successes, failures and that grey area in between.
You mentioned that you're an exhibitions coordinator as well as a teacher; how do these relate to your practice, if at all? Do you find that they are usually complementary? The opposite?
While sometimes completely chaotic and draining to the mind and body, I find the mix of being an Exhibitions Coordinator at The Aldrich, teaching at Manhattanville College and keeping up with my own practice (with life happening all the while!) an amazing experience. And I do mean this in all realistic honesty, both the draining part and the excitement of it all. It’s not easy but it’s worth it.
I say that because I get to deal with art and artists every day. And to be able to say that makes me quite happy. Just as I mentioned the material migrations within my studio, migrations of the conceptual, material, experiential, process and so much more occur between museum, teaching and studio constantly.
To explain this properly, I have to go back in time a bit since I started at The Aldrich Museum as a part time guard. I was fresh out of SUNY New Paltz’s MFA program, sold a bunch in NYC right after graduation but then the market crashed and plans changed. I had no idea what to do so I went back to my parents house and applied for whatever job I could get. I think I even applied to a house painting company and left a message saying I had an MFA in painting, needless to say I didn’t get a call back.
Luckily and oddly enough there was this gem of a contemporary art museum not too far from where I was living in Northern Westchester County, NY. A few months later they gave me a call. So it all started as a guard (I still remember the first piece I guarded was a John Cage text work, fitting for the quiet occasion).
But during that position I had time to reflect. To see how art was displayed properly, to talk with visitors, fellow employees and eventually artists about work all day. I was able to see and meditate on the current shows, really taking in ideas whether I liked the work or not. Often a show would come in that I really wasn’t into and it would leave being one of my favorite exhibitions. Changing my standards and making me question more.
From there, I started to do some art handling/preparatorial work on show changes. That revealed how art was shipped, packed, installed, planned and gave me a complete crash course in carpentry/fabrication as well as current art tech standards. I was able to have more face to face time with the artists, meeting some of my idols, seeing the person behind the work and discovering out how they lived, what they did for employment on top of their practice, if they needed it, how they handled art, life, family, friends and relationships.
During this time I also worked for Tom Sachs as previously mentioned, so I both worked within this atmosphere and lived it simultaneously.
Eventually I climbed the chain further being promoted to Exhibitions and Facilities Assistant and finally to my current position as full time Exhibitions Coordinator. Now I have more of a role in the planning of shows years in advance, visiting artist’s studios, discussing potentials and how exactly we make those concepts or ideas actually happen/become an exhibition.
All in all my experience at The Aldrich has been and continues to be an amazing post graduate education/boot camp for the art world and how artists, galleries, museums, institutions and collectors function. What I’ve learned and who I’ve met along the way are priceless to my practice, quite frankly I wouldn’t be the artist or person I am without them.
The effects are certainly complimentary to my own studio as daunting tasks like framing, packing, shipping and storing your work properly, while considering what’s archival or not become practiced rituals. Or the Do’s and Don’ts of exhibition proposals, how to speak to galleries/curators, how to run a studio/how others were successful doing so, how exhibitions are planned and most importantly how to bounce back from failures.
This on top of setting schedules, showing up ready for shows, knowing your people/institutions, communicating properly and keeping good relations with those who have given you an opportunity and seeing/being open to a broad range of art both contemporary and historic combined with a diligent studio practice gave me a very nice foundation. Really the list can go on and on, so this is just a snippet of what I’ve learned but most importantly it’s shown me how to be professional.
This level of professionalism and practice is something I try to pass along in my teaching, accented with personal stories of working with artists, which bring grand or esoteric ideas back to being human at the core and more easily accessibly. Exposing my students to historic and contemporary art from the ground up, concept to execution then onto installation, presentation and reception. So both studio and gallery converge within my classroom. And of course Tom Sachs’ 10 Bullets apply as how to conduct one self in when in the studio. I make them watch the video during each semester (my physical copy is actually framed above my desk at The Aldrich).
Despite this rigor, I encourage experimentation and associated failures on all levels with a good amount of levity. Setting that tone in my classroom immediately echoes within my own studio, their experimentations/results often lead to a questioning of my own work or processes when I get home, so the system is beneficially entropic.
If you could go back in time to when you were first considering pursuing art, or studying it as a student, what advice would you offer yourself, based on what you know now?
I first studied at college with hopes of being a doctor. I would tell myself being an artist is equally as hard. Mentally, physically, financially and socially. Sure the payoff for an MD is great eventually but trust me, they’re in debt for a long time too.
I grew up in Westchester and Fairfield Counties in NY and CT respectively with NYC just south of me. These are some of the wealthiest areas in the nation, ideas of success and happiness through money are all around. So as a kid that’s what the atmosphere promotes. I had to and still do have to remind myself to shake that notion.
If you love what you do, then don’t look back. Rewards aren’t always fiscal. Have different standards.
I would tell myself to take the opportunities that my intuition deems right. The results, good, bad or seemingly pointless, will teach you something substantial in the long run.
Even if you have no idea how to do a job, say you do and teach yourself as you go if you feel it in your bones. I don’t know how many times I thought I would get fired everyday from a job because I had no idea what I was doing. Learn from the people who already know and are willing to offer. They wore some similar shoes at one time.
See your full worth and present yourself accordingly, learn through every possibility you can get. It will just make you more well rounded. The road will be frustratingly slow at times but that’s how you discover and grow properly.
Last, you’re always in process. This is not an excuse to slack off but a drive to keep going through it all. Think about full forms when you’re dead.
And stay humble.
What do you feel that you need most as an artist?
Time, first and foremost. It’s a simple answer.
You need the intellectual, physical and social environment/circles to explore ideas and maintain a support system in addition to the time to make work.
I love to study biographies of artists, musicians and thinkers alike to see how they developed and under what circumstances did they thrive. It helps me keep going.
Naturally you’ll need money as well but a good man once told me “you work to be your own Medici”, in essence, work to fund your own work and be your own boss. That’s true freedom.
Is there any aspect of your work that you find particularly challenging?
Time, balance and not becoming overly obsessed with a project at hand, I tend to get too into the work I’m doing. Where it just dominates my thoughts and I have trouble relaxing.
There is always something to do creatively, professionally or academically once the ball starts rolling. It’s something I’ve had to come to terms with recently. Giving myself a break is the hardest part. I need to come back to real life to make the work whole. So when I go back after these breathers, the work actually flows better.
Is there a moment in your career (so far!) that you consider to be the most rewarding?
Showing along side my mentor Randy Williams in a two person show last year at my alma mater Manhattanville College.
It was the conversations we’ve had over the years in silence. Works just spoke of our friendship.
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or projects?
I currently have a solo show up at Westchester Community College in Valhalla, NY entitled “Christopher E. Manning: Everything, As Perfect As It Seems” featuring a massive 300 Polaroid installation, Mediums and Chandeliers.
I’ll be showing a selection of 21 Polaroid/Instant works at The Impossible Project Laboratory in Berlin opening November 17th. I’ve been collaborating with The Impossible Project for a few years now, they make and are continuing to make some really amazing instant film for Polaroid cameras. It’s the only film I use in my Polaroid based works now.
I’m included in the traveling group show Fiction (With Only Daylight Between Us) curated by Jeffrey Cortland Jones which has been exhibited at Corridor in Dayton, OH, Boeckercontemporary in Heidelberg, Germany and will open next at Angelika Studios in High Wycombe, UK on December 10th.
I have a Polaroid work in Small Works at Garrison Art Center in Garrison, NY. Opening December 10th.
Last on the exhibition front, I’m currently planning a two person show with my good friend Kerri Gaudelli at The Canterbury School in New Milford, CT in January, details to follow.
I have works in the latest edition of Vellum Magazine, No. 17.
And I’m working on the next round of shows for “Undisclosed Facts” at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum featuring work by Beth Campbell, Kay Rosen, Suzanne McClelland and William Powhida.
Anything else you would like to add?
Be good to the good people.
Find more at christopheremanning.com!
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