ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Werner Mannaers - 2008 - On Flatness [EN, essay],
On flatness and pictorial space
A few words about the work of Werner Mannaers
The first thing that strikes you when you meet Werner Mannaers is his candour. He says he's not quite sure if he should tell the anecdote that goes with each painting and asks what I think is best. I suggest he talks about the works themselves and saves the anecdotes for talk shows and other more in-depth, intellectual interviews.
Central to the exhibition is a portrait of his mother, in profile, which he completed by sticking on a cut-out mouth in frontal view. The mouth floats above the texture of the underpainting and faces the viewer. Opposite this painting, ten metres further on, hangs a work created in a similar sort of way, but by painting rather than pasting. Originally it was divided into two planes which met in a spurious diagonal: on the left was a pastel-coloured blue 'triangle' (actually a square, because the diagonal does not end in the corner) and on the right a soft pink triangle. This work was eventually completed by adding a smaller, fluorescent pink triangle on the far right. Before this addition the painting was 'too beautiful'. Actually it was not a painting. Only by adding the third triangle did a pictorial space emerge: an apparent depth which derives from the contrast between the soft pink and the added fluorescent pink. The effect was to make the painting 'ugly', albeit in a very controlled and economic manner.
The addition of the fluorescent pink serves the same purpose as the stuck-on mouth: it creates a pictorial space. With Mannaers the ‘space’ is usually created by combining planes which dry more quickly or more slowly and present more or less texture depending on the amount of thinner added. Thinly painted areas with clearly visible brushstrokes are partially overlapped by areas consisting of faster drying paint, which is laid flatter on the canvas and provides better coverage. Sometimes he adds something at the end in chalk or pastel.
Two other paintings which can help us look at Mannaers’ work can be seen as a similar pair to the above, because one of them was also the result of sticking on a piece of paper and the other was created in an amusing, painterly manner. The first painting was, as we have said, finished with the addition of a piece of paper, in this case printed with red disks which become smaller in a rather strange way as if suggesting volume. I asked Mannaers if it was a detail of a reproduction of a Lichtenstein painting. "That's right", he said, "and I deliberately cut out the area on a slant to heighten the spatial effect." Once we know this painting, we are quicker to see what happens in the Superman painting: Superman's face is flecked with comical, thin, awkwardly placed, black imitation dots. The white of his face is left blank. The spotty white on his suit, however, is painted on top of the black ground, wet on wet.
In another painting we see how the border of a green area, which was dirty because it was painted too soon after the adjacent area, is painted over thinly to eliminate the dirty shadow. The colour used for the correction is a little brighter than the other green. It is on that spot that the painting comes into being.
Something similar happens in Luc Tuymans' painting ‘The Valley’: the boy's face is a yellowish colour and is evoked by the shaded parts. But next to the shadows, in the yellow areas, almost invisibly, greener parts are added: "To make the image less graphic and static", Tuymans told me, "at the very end I introduced the slightly greener-yellow parts on the edge of the shaded parts, for example on the left cheek and on the nose, so that you reformulate the edge of the pale yellow areas and the surface acquires a rougher dimension. What is important to me is not perspective but defining something by means of colour."
Every original painter creates his own 'pictorial space'. Sometimes it is possible to see where the specifics of that pictorial space lie. In Tuymans' case that space is often the result of an unexpected colour temperature and fine, rapidly executed brushstrokes, whereby objects are evoked by their disintegrating or shifting shadows. Mannaers' work is closer to the paintings we know from Walter Swennen and Raoul De Keyser. With De Keyser Mannaers shares a sense of freedom, but in De Keyser's case it is more radical. Sometimes there seems to be an affinity between their forms, but De Keyser's are sparser and also more reminiscent of actual objects of which they seem to form a trembling after-image. Mannaers seemingly shares with Swennen the use of existing images, but they are not the same sort of images and they are chosen for different reasons. In his paintings Swennen cites illustrations (usually drawings or gouaches taken, for example, from the covers of the five hundred 'Vlaamse Filmkes’ I once lent him) whose incorrect reductions in scale or other awkward solutions reveal the constructed aspect of the perspective space and make this type of amusing, flat painting with a specific pictorial space possible. Mannaers cites images (for example Géricault's kleptomania) by way of homage, as a reflection on the history of art or for anecdotal reasons which we will not go into here.
Another difference between Mannaers and Swennen is that the latter tries to contain the pictorial space of his paintings: he tries to prevent it spreading beyond the edge of the canvas. Mannaers does exactly the opposite: he wants the pictorial space to spread.
So Mannaers' art and its pictorial space can take any number of different forms. Some of the works are beautiful or moving. And some of the exhibitions are wonderful. Sometimes Mannaers makes crazy paintings which all painters would love to have made, like ‘Weeping for you’ with its shoddy typography and those mad, thick, red, sagging forms. You can laugh at them – through your tears. And that makes you feel good.
Montagne de Miel, October 2