Ana Manso: Sirena

Written for my blog Vigo Expo

Ana Manso,  Two sons, two sons,  2017, pastel and wax on wall, Valence Ville

Ana Manso, Two sons, two sons, 2017, pastel and wax on wall, Valence Ville

In popular mythology the sirens sang from ocean cliffs, but according to the Greeks they inhabited a ‘meadow starred with flowers.’ Siren surfaces- flowing hair, waves, seaweed, grass, and flower petals- show up in Ana Manso’s diaphanous and colorful paintings. Like notes in a song, her brushstrokes seem to vibrate and shape shift. In Sirena (Mermaid) (2015), for example, snake-like forms resemble letters, ropes, wisps of smoke, or some kind of innards.

“I know this space is mine; I have this space and I do what I want,” Ana says. Tantalizing flecks of red, blue, and yellow here could be intentional, or they could be drips or points of contact with another works in-progress. Both types of marks point back to her studio as a place of movement, accident, and experiment, where ideas and materials graft onto one another. Ana’s paintings are action-spaces; their springing, improvised choreography records the free and flexible energy inside the studio and the creative mind itself.

Did I see this piece (ee ou, 2016) the other day in her studio, but transformed by more coats of paint? Layer after layer and mark after mark, time stops when Ana is painting and never quite passes the same way again. For Ana, painting is about freedom. Her job is “to pay attention to what things are becoming” and then underline them. She may return to a piece that has been exhibited or paused months or years earlier if she sees that things continue to happen within it.

This avoidance of a clear beginning or end makes me think of the axolotl, a critically endangered aquatic salamander in the Sirenidae/siren (sirens again!) family that lives only in Lake Xochimilco, the swamp beneath Mexico City. Axolotls exhibit neoteny, meaning that they mature without undergoing metamorphosis. Remaining in between phases is a fruitful state: axolotls readily accept transplants from others and can regenerate lost limbs. Sometimes they even grow extra appendages. It’s an elasticity that reminds me of Ana’s painting method and its defiance of time.

Part of what draws me to Ana’s work is the way she makes her argument against a stopping point: her paintings continue to accept her interventions while hardly showing the weight of them. Smooth marks and diaphanous washes keep her surfaces flat so that no build up is evident. Phases of creation are shown between gauzy layers of paint and on the sides of her paintings, which might be an entirely different color than their surfaces.  A delicate dimensionality of colors, marks, and tones emerges and falls away. It is a beautiful limbo to get lost in.

Rather than working from sketches or a set plan, Ana is “looking for something to appear” when she paints. But she also has a tendency to hide things, though not entirely. Indeed, some of her mark making recalls camouflage- not quite floral, not quite patterned. Ana’s paintings are relics of a body in motion. Each one documents a series of choices that evidence her physical journey across a body-sized canvas field. Some parts of the journey hide, others reveal.

While we were talking, my eye kept returning to a tropical print shirt hanging alongside the large oil paintings in Ana’s studio. ¨A painting is like clothes without a body- it´s like a body without being a body,¨ she said. Regarding embodiment- how can a painting personify or replace the body itself?  I’m reminded of the escudos de monjas (nuns’ shields), painted papier-mache medallions fastened to the front of Mexican Hieronymite nuns’ formal habits in the 17th-19th centuries. Pinned just under the nun’s chin, the shield was meant to draw the eye away from the vanities of the human face and instead towards paintings of heaven, angels, and saints. An essential part of monastic wardrobe, escudos blurred the boundary between painting and clothing in order to prioritize a state of grace over physical reality.

One of Ana’s influences is the painter Forrest Bess. Bess used abstraction to externalize spiritualistic investigations of his own body’s gender and sense of duality. Ana’s work also unfetters the body through painting. She told me that she experiences episodes of synesthesia, in which stimulus for one modality triggers a response from another (ie- experiencing sound as color, etc). Her paintings strive to capture these supernatural states. Ana talked about ‘tasting’ layers of color and the ‘hug’ of painting- her cloud-like, free floating forms encourage a crossing of sensual routes.

Framed with simple strips of wood set flush with the painted surface, Bess’s works look like windows you might find in a fishing cabin on the Texas Gulf coast where he lived. Ana says her work is not “abstract for the ease of abstraction,” but rather in order to ask “how an image could represent or be a window for another thing.” Much of the dynamism in her work comes from a tension between figuration and abstraction. I find this to come most from moments when her hand gestures towards writing.

Like painting, the act of writing moves between figuration and abstraction because it uses physical marks to represent intangible ideas and feelings. Ana’s calligraphic, rhythmic strokes have a flavor of annotation, as if she’s taking something down quickly. Some works appear to contain a sort of lexicon of mark making, although they are never systematic. Although her marks are not fixed to a certain meaning, they recall the sound-word units (the title of ee ou, 2016 for example) that come together to form writing or speech. And so I ‘read’ or ‘listen’ to her paintings as a sort of language.

The most famous axolotls are an iridescent white color. They descend from a mutated specimen originally sent in 1863 to Paris’ Jardin des Plantes. In this garden, the narrator in Julio Cortázar’s short story “The Axolotl” slowly transforms into a axolotl after looking through layers of aquarium glass day after day: “No transition, no surprise, I saw my face against the glass, I saw it on the outside of the tank, I saw it on the other side of the glass.” This back and forth mirrors the viewer’s eye when it slows down to linger over the layers of Ana’s paintings. There is something there, though it remains unclear exactly what it is. It is a mesmerizing search.

April 2016