Christopher E. Manning, Everything, As Perfect As It Seems

JTF (just the facts):  Published in 2020 by Aint-Bad (here). Hardcover, perfect bound, 7″ x 9″, 96 pages, with 78 color images. Includes texts by Randy Williams and Lizzie Stein. In an edition of 300 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Consider the humble Polaroid. Its heyday was decades ago. The eponymous company is long since bankrupt. But the iconic form of its best-known product remains as recognizable today as ever. A small three inch square image surrounded by white border fattening at the bottom to allow space for a handwritten caption (and also a utilitarian function: chemical storage). These small mementos once speckled daily life around the planet, finding their way into innumerable photo albums, bulletin boards, and back pockets. Over 14 million Polaroid cameras were sold in 1978 alone. As a consumer phenomenon, they were the iPhones of their time, producing pictures which were fast, cheap, and ultimately disposable. 

As with all low-brow forms, Polaroids were gradually adopted into the fine art scene. Since the 1970s they have been somewhat embraced in this world, but only to an extent, never fully able to shake the stigma of colloquial consumable. Whether puked on by Dash Snow, subsumed into grids by David Hockney, sliced and recombined by Nobuyoshi Araki, defaced by Johanna Calle, emulsion-tweaked by the likes of Les Krims, Lucas Samaras, and Andreas Mahl, abstracted into chemical burns by Bill Miller, or driven to retreat by Jerome Simon, Polaroids have been typically treated with opprobrium by artists. It’s fair to say they have served as a means to an end, perhaps a tool to check exposure on the way to creating a “real” photo. But considered on their own terms? Rarely. Walker Evans might have foreseen such indignities when he warned, “Nobody should touch a Polaroid until he’s over 60.”

Christopher E. Manning has chosen to ignore that proscription along with most other rules. At 37, the North Salem (NY) based multi-media artist falls well below Evans’ cutoff. Photography is one interest of Manning’s. Also sculpture, printmaking, drawing, and collage. In the lowly Polaroid he has found a vehicle to channel all five media into one outlet. His monograph Everything, As Perfect As It Seems collects 75 Polaroid-based works from the past decade. They are displayed without fuss at actual size, one per page paired by theme across dual spreads, allowing the reader an experience which comes close to the real thing, at least within the 2D limitations of the book form. If these pieces seem rather settled on the page, that appearance belies Manning’s manic creativity.  “My studio has a lot going on, all the time,” he says, in something of an understatement. He typically has 100-150 works in flux at any given moment.

Although Manning began shooting Polaroids as an innocent kid in the 1980s, it wasn’t decades later that other interests spilled over. By the time the book catches him he is at mid-career, in full “blend” mode, and almost all Polaroids here have been altered in one way or another. The treatments vary wildly, from radical violations to small collage elements. A handful survive as straight unmanipulated prints, but they are the exception. Modification is Manning’s modus operandi. As described on his site, the unifying impulse of all these works is to “explore an autobiographical excavation of the self with interest in duality and fragmented storytelling.” The word excavation is borrowed from the de Kooning painting of that name.

The book wastes no time excavating the self as it opens with a pair of self portraits. In each one, an oval has been carved out of the original Polaroid where Manning’s face should be, revealing an underlying layer comprised of archival imagery. One replaces Manning with flowers, the other with a spiraling ammonite shell. These are the first two in a recurring series which becomes a principle thread in the book. Lizzie Stein’s afterward describes them as “peephole(s) into the artist’s psyche and the stories that reside there.” Manning has found an impressive range of psychic peepholes with which to supplant his visage. Some, like a doorway, a missing brick, and black pitch of tar, describe peepholes in literal fashion. Others—lightning bolts, alternate faces, a geode, a flowerbed—are metaphorical. Listed by title in the rear index, Manning labels his impositions overtly, as “Self Portrait With Mask (subject or method)”.  

Clearly there is self examination going on here—as with all selfies—but the dynamics are open to interpretation. An impulse toward self effacement seems evident. The uniform precision of oval cuts—made with a stone by a Native American White Feather Healer—and formal alignment of collage elements implies a degree of fussiness. Perhaps there is a latent yearning to reconnect with the natural world? An eggcentric approach to the egocentric? Or maybe it’s no more complicated than a kid in a sandbox or tattoo artist, compelled implacably toward alteration of one’s self and one’s surroundings. If these interpretations remain speculative, that’s just fine with Manning. His somewhat mushy website explanation refuses to be pinned down: “Together these works create a portrait of what shapes us, while embodying the deluge of all that was forgotten or surplus to existence.”

All well and good, but for a book containing dozens of self portraits, it’s notable that the reader is left with no clear mental image of the author’s appearance. Even the most direct record, “Self Portrait At Evergreen” which appears midway through the book as a straight headshot, is coy. The photo is underexposed and Manning’s features are hard to make out. 

Manning’s fondness for elliptical form isn’t limited to self portraits. He extends the technique to other subjects too. An oval church tower interjects itself into an abstract form. Ovaled hands manifest in several others. We see a mountainscape, a rosebud, Greek statues, a nude, a forest, and various other figures, all collaged as ovals into a range of unrelated foregrounds. These symbols have become a visual language for me,” he explains, calling them “collaged personal hieroglyphs.” A handful of images employ multiple and intersecting ovals. Regardless of subject or repetition the primary effect is disruptive and open-ended. These ovoid forms, generally of similar size and placement in each Polaroid, are something of a go-to move for Manning. But their motivation remains mysterious. 

The oval forms—which comprise maybe 1/3 of the book—provide a baseline against which Manning’s more adventurous provocations can launch. “Art is a volatile engagement in self-discoveries,” writes Randy Williams in the introduction, and for Manning the keyword seems to be “volatile”. He heaps all manner of physical abuse on his poor Polaroids. He paints, cuts, scratches, and writes on them. He tears away emulsion layers, applies old news clippings, assaults them with ink, gold leaf and paint. He sews thread into them, striates, and invades the white border. Atop one he attaches a rusty door hinge. Another is entombed under thick white acrylic. The only thing Manning seems hesitant to attack is the Polaroid’s square shape. Underlying each work, its form remains identifiable enough to stir memories, and root everything in the historic context of this archaic medium. “Conceptually these mediums have been used to record history,” he writes in his bio, “but often that moment is just the surface, processes lead to unearthing the exteriors of time, covering a vulnerability or amending memory with footnotes.” 

Although they have a foot in both worlds, most of these works lean closer to sculpture than photography, less Warhol snapshot than Rauschenberg combine. In fact one might wonder why Manning uses photography at all. Why go to the trouble to shoot a photograph if the end result will be mostly eradicated later? If imagined in their original form these Polaroids do not appear to capture much information. The photos tend to circle a narrow orbit between fuzzy pastorals and selfie headshots. Lizzie Stein’s essay categorizes Manning’s interests by general subject: Portraits of the Artist, The natural world, Energy, and Unexpected materials. The organizational impulse is understandable. But for me it misses the forest for the trees. Direct documentation—the integral function of most photography—may have once been important to Manning. But it is a minor element now. 

Even the few Polaroids that have been left as-is are prosaic: scraps of plant life under dim skies, generally underexposed and blurry. Randy Williams labels such banalities “mundane elegance”. But I think Manning sees in them something less refined. They might be viewed as found combines, visual detritus to inform his studio creations. “After collecting so many moments,” he says, “I began to see these instants as fragments of tangible memory – a portrait of what has, will, and always form me. But often looking back on a Polaroid, that moment was just the surface. There were feelings, expressions and images that needed to be revealed or reflected upon with additional commentary. Consequently the process led to excavating time, covering a vulnerability/moment needing to be forgotten or amending memory with footnotes.” 

The brute physicality of Polaroids seems central to Manning’s drive. Unlike most pictures—which exist today mainly as binary streams—each Polaroid is a sui generis specimen, uneasily replicated, surely an attraction for an artist crafting unique works. There is also the suspension of time to consider, which is inherent in Polaroid shooting. Each shot requires a few minutes of development after exposure, a period of anticipation, evolution, and patience which might be considered a microcosm of creative practice. This delay is of course invisible in a book of finished Polaroids. But it is there nonetheless, and quite integral. While the photographer is waiting, he or she might take a breath to meditate on the scene, or to jot notes on the white border. This was perhaps the origin of Manning’s title graphic, which scrawls Everything, As Perfect As It Seems twice across a plain black cover, once in his handwriting and once in his mother’s.

Manning has created hundreds of Polaroid works in recent years, and his book only has space for a limited selection (75). Three installation views incorporated into the Stein essay show Everything, As Perfect As It Seems in a gallery context, hinting at the project’s larger possibilities. “Pieces nestled together may harmonize contrast, play off each other, pose questions, tell a joke, or introduce an obscure idea,” she writes. And it’s true. Laid out in massive gridform on the wall, Manning’s Polaroids speak to each other, and assume a collective power which is difficult to convey in book form. Here it’s easier to imagine him working on dozens of pieces at once, attaching ephemera here and there. Seen in this new dimension the reader wonders if a gallery isn’t a more natural habitat than a monograph. A tantalizing possibility which lies beyond the scope of this review. If everything Manning’s book contains is not as perfect as it seems, that is in keeping with the legacy of the humble Polaroid.

Collector’s POV: Christopher E. Manning does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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