By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST, April 2018
It was a commission that led J. Steven Manolis to paint Qatari Rhapsodies Sonata #1. Manolis is a colorist, obsessively so, and at the time he had been planning to move on from the brilliant, arterial reds he had used in his series, Redworld, to working with maroon, the rich, dark red, so called for marron, French for chestnut. This color is associated with Harvard, the college attended by his wife, Myrthia, an excellent jewelry designer, so Manolis was already thinking about finding a location near the university where he could show this new, as yet unpainted work. But then along came the Qatar commission. Maroon is a dominant color in the Qatar flag. Simple.
Well, not that simple actually. Art that channels or even just references the inner life of a nation will always get special attention. Picasso was careful to make little political art but Guernica is arguably his best-known single painting. Flags moreover are abstractions, but loaded ones. “One night I dreamed that I painted a large American flag,” Jasper Johns has said of that work, “and the next morning I got up and I went out and bought the materials to begin it.” And that is arguably his best-known painting. Qatar, a feisty nation, is constantly being buffeted from contrary directions during the War of Thrones currently convulsing the region but the lesson of Renaissance Italy is that wars come and go, the art remains. As will Qatari Rhapsodies Sonata #1.
Colors are charged with power. But, like the superheroes strutting their stuff on movie screens and in comicbooks, the power of each is different. Trust the artists on this. “How wonderful yellow is,” marveled Van Gogh. “It stands for the sun”. “Blue is the only color which maintains its own character in all its tones”, observed Raoul Dufy. “It will always stay blue.” Yellow, blue and red are, of course, the primary colors, the triumvirate. Their co-equals are the uncolors, black and white. “Before, when I didn’t know what color to put down, I put down black. Black is a force,” Henri Matisse declared in 1946. “Now I’ve given up blacks.”
These are the ingredients from which our giddily polychrome universe derives because any and every other hue – the violets, oranges, greys, creams, pinks, beiges, pastels, earth colors, skin colors – is a blend, a mix, a confection and however much they may seduce and delight not one of them, not imperial purple, not even the greens - the color of a nearby ocean and growing plants everywhere - packs the punch of the primaries. And from early times to the present it has been accepted that the dominant color, the primo of the primaries, is red. Mark Rothko is quoted as saying “There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend: One day, the black will swallow the red.” Actually this was put into the artist‘s mouth by the playwright, John Logan, in his 2009 play, Red, but it indicates the pull of red that the line is often cited as an actual quote.
It happens though that Steven Manolis did not at first focus on color. In late 2014 when he launched himself onto a rigorous program of painting seven days a week it was to make a series of Black & Whites. The individual pieces that resulted are vibrant, compelling, and as a total body of work the Black & Whites can be seen as a reaction against the rising flood of glib, unfelt abstraction across the art world globally.
But then Manolis did move on to color. A specific color: Red. And before he had laid a brush on canvas he declared his intentions in the manner of the great avant-gardes of the early to mid 20th century by publishing a manifesto. This one is a poem, Redworld. He prefaces it by announcing that he does NOT have a favorite color but that red is the most passionate of colors and absolutely his favorite to live with. And in the poem he is as motivational as Jeff Koons when he describes what immersion in his Redworld can teach. Such as:
Don't be afraid of failure....
Experiment and learn from
Don't make the same mistake twice!
The last line reads: FULL-ON; ALL-IN!, which is also an accurate description of the Manolis modus operandi as he got moving on his next projected series. In the spring of 2015 he used eleven reds in painting Redworld Glaze, a four-panel piece, and his first large-scale work at twelve by sixteen feet. This was the prototype and he now settled down to working on the tool-kit he needed for the journey. Two methods of paint handling would be crucial to the Redworld series: A layering of color and the glazing of the entire canvas. A third element is a vocabulary of emblems, such as circles within circles within circles, which he calls “Concentrics”, and his frequent use of a line of vertical dashes of similar height. Manolis calls this his “Symbology”.
This use of symbols is Manolis’ own, quite unlike symbolic references in such of his Abstract Expressionist predecessors as Rothko and Barnett Newman. Clearly the signs are charged with meaning so far as Manolis is concerned – there are always five vertical dashes, for instance – and, if asked, he will readily share that meaning, but it is also clear that nobody could guess that meaning however long they studied a painting. Which is just the point. Odilon Redon, the 19th century French Symbolist, said of his images that whatever meaning they had for him was irrelevant to any other viewer, and that the ambiguity was part of his work. A sense of that witholding, of the enigmatic co-habiting with the rational, is part of the power of the Redworld paintings.
Just how does Manolis contrive to make the redness work for him? After all, red is not inherently positive in itself. Nor is any color. All have many, oppositional meanings. Black is the color of death and mourning, right? In China the color of death and mourning is white. Polls always list blue as the most placid color. Cue in Irving Berlin’s Nothing but blue skies from now on. But Picasso’s Blue period isn’t placid nor are the American Blues. Yellow can be an insult in You yellow-bellied rat! Or pure joy when the Beatles sang We all live in a yellow submarine.
But no other color has the violently contradictory associations as red and this was true when the ancient Romans mined in Spain, so toxic a process that the prisoners who worked the mines were virtually under a death sentence. The politics are tangled too. Communists are red but so are American Conservatives. There are Red Letters Days and Valentines, but fire trucks are red, and so are devils, and, yes, it’s passionate but those passions include love and rage, and artists can and do use red to channel all or any of them.
Twilight in the Wilderness by Frederic Church, a towering figure in the Hudson River school, was painted in 1860. It features a spectacularly red sunset and a glimmering red lake and art historians have described it as a warning – one called it a “natural apocalypse” - whether of the impending civil war, an early alarm over the threatened environment, or both. Andy Warhol’s juicy reds – Campbell’s soup, Coca Cola, Elizabeth Taylor’s lips – are empowered by the muscular cultures of mass media and marketing. On just which visual resources and wells of feeling about redness does Steven Manolis draw?
One tell-tale clue can be discerned in his series based on the water at Key West, Florida. “It’s the most extraordinary place,” the artist says. “The water changes colors ten times a day. And at no times more than sunset.” Another canvas is based on the changing colors of water and draws its energy from Pink Sands, Bermuda, which, Manolis says, is the most beautiful beach he has ever seen. The specific hues of another are borrowed from the differently colored plumage of male and female tropical birds and on yet another canvas the artist based color decisions on observations of the way that the colors of the flamingo have evolved from the vivid pink seen in the Audubon illustrations to the pinkish-orange of today, entirely because of enforced changes in their diet. He added “The great teacher Hans Hoffman said it’s time to quit painting what we see, it’s time to paint what you feel. So how do you paint what you feel? The answer is through color. Because color elicits emotions. Everyone responds to a different color. Colors are powerful. They are powerful in nature, they are powerful in life.” The palette of Steven Manolis, in short, is based neither on threat of violence nor on commercial artifice but on the abundant splendor to be found both in four-star beauty spots and the offbeat nooks and crannies of the natural world.
A real estate business mantra about placement runs Location! Location! Location! This is as true of an art career and Steven Manolis has a well-honed sense of place, both as source material for his paintings and in planning where they should go. Redworld had been a highly successful series for him so he capped it by presenting seven canvases to his former college, the University of South Dakota. They are now on permanent hang in four well-frequented locations.
Now Qatari Rhapsodies.
Steven Manolis is not an artist who only takes a transactional interest in his career. He has been to Qatar and in recent conversations he has indicated great curiosity, the wish to spend more time there. Interesting. Three of his recent paintings channel not the natural world but a very human one, being based on the formal color codes adhered to in that old world social enclave of Palm Beach. Thus they can be seen as abstract portraits of the place, as much as his Key West canvases, but based on social life. I shall be waiting to see if any paintings result from his Qatar experience with keen interest. WM