Water is Wide
August 2, 2019 to September 28, 2019

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William Manning: The Water is Wide
By Kay Tobler Liss

William Manning might be the most interesting and original contemporary painter in Maine many people have never heard of. As a reviewer remarked of him, he is one of the best-kept secrets in the state. Perhaps that’s because, though he’s been painting for over 60 years now, he is among the very few Maine artists who has chosen to stay in the state, essentially for his entire career. Perhaps another reason is that he is one of the very few abstract painters – and he claims, rightfully, to be the first, too – in a state most people associate with the Wyeths, Marsden Hartley, Winslow Homer or painters of lobster boats and lighthouses.
Yvette Torres Fine Art in Rockland, one of the rare galleries in Maine to show abstract work exclusively, will present an exhibition of Manning’s recent work, The Water is Wide, in August and September. This will be the first large show of his paintings since a retrospective at the University of New England Gallery of Art in 2008. Prior to that, he had major shows at Bates College Museum of Art in 2003 and at the Farnsworth Art Museum in 1995. He also has shown regularly at the Anita Shapolsky Gallery in New York City. His paintings are in collections, not only at the Portland Museum of Art and the Farnsworth, but in the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC and as far afield as American embassies in Switzerland, Poland and Thailand.
Manning, now 83, has gone through various stages in his painting life. In fact, he said recently that “when I start repeating myself, I’ll stop painting.” He fervently believes in what he calls “the evolution of painting,” in particular the evolution of Abstract Expressionism and Cubism, two movements that have informed his work, but which he has integrated and developed into his unique style combining hard lines with organic, curved brushstrokes. Though his work has gone through phases, always present is this balance between the geometric and the organic, the former being what he sees as the world of man and the latter the forms of nature.
Nature is certainly a powerful presence in Maine, and Manning, who was born in Lewiston and now lives in Falmouth, has sought it out for inspiration throughout his career, spending two months in the fall on Mohegan Island for 45 years of his life. Though he is unable to physically get there now, he says it is so much a part of him that he can evoke it at will in his work – the rocky cliffs, the vast rolling ocean. One of the most noteworthy and arresting styles he developed was in what he calls pedestal paintings, over six-foot-tall totemic wooden pillars painted and layered with torn pieces of acrylic paintings on paper. These are most often conceived in a grouping, so that one can walk amidst them, such as in what was called by exhibitors the Atlantic Series, which he created in 1994 and in which, more than anything, he wanted to convey the dynamic three-dimensionality of the ocean.
This attraction to trying to convey three-dimensionality in painting, that he said began in the 1980s and continued through 2004, manifested itself in a number of paintings which will appear in the upcoming Rockland show. They are acrylic paintings on a plywood base with painted wood squares fixed upon them in various positions to give the work as a whole not only three-dimensionality, but a kinesthetic sense of spinning, pulsating, even leaping out at you. Considering they are quite small, about a foot square, this is an impressive feat. His bold, Fauvist choice of colors go a long way to accomplishing this utterly mobile feeling too, such as in P762, where a lavender square is fixed upon a pinkish orange square sporting a maroon stripe on its edge, both pieces layered upon the sweeping organic brushstrokes of the underlying painting in lush greens blending into yellows and ochers. Manning is a true master of color. What he achieves is so unexpected that it leaves one a little dizzy at first, but then it quickly begins to work its magic, making one feel pleasure, and a sense of sudden calm, in the revelation of how many seemingly disparate things can work so wonderfully together as a whole.
Other works in the exhibit will include a number of acrylic paintings, four by four feet, on Masonite. Depth and a dynamic quality are conveyed here through the tension and balance between the geometric lines of varying widths and colors and lively brushwork of squiggly forms, sometimes painted on paper and applied to the painting surface, which adds to the dimensionality. The paintings create an optical playfulness but a meditativeness at the same time, bringing to mind Paul Klee’s work, though they are really something unique.
When asked how he approaches what appears to be a rather complex process of creating, involving various materials done at different times, he surprisingly says he doesn’t usually have “a conception beforehand. It is all spontaneous.” He’ll start out perhaps doing some abstract painting on paper, then he might create the geometric lines on the Masonite board, and afterwards, depending on what feels right at the time, he’ll tear up some of his paper creations and apply them where they seem to belong. Sometimes, he will have a story or an image he wants to convey, but often it is simply playing with color and line. This organic way of creating, he says, is something like what Matisse said so enigmatically about his process: ‘I am always trying to do the painting I really want to do.”
Manning estimates that he has done over 3,000 paintings in his life, and he is still going strong. A case of childhood polio, which most recently has caused him to curtail some of his more physical painterly efforts, does not deter his spirit to create. He said the polio he contracted when he was six years old in 1942, was isolating, especially since he was in the hospital for long periods during which his parents, living a distance away, were unable to visit him. But in a serendipitous twist of fate that proves what can crush you can also save you, a cousin who lived not far away brought him a large set of colored inks, launching him on his destined path of painting and drawing.
Manning went on to study at the Portland School of Art, which now is The Maine College of Art, and taught for a number of years there and at the Concept School of Visual Studies in Portland, of which he was a co-founder, until the early 1970s.
The show will be up through September 30. Yvette Torres Fine Art is located at 464 Main Street in Rockland and the phone number is 207-332-4014.