Against the Grain:
Recent Paintings and Drawings of Joseph Mann
Professor of Art History, Columbia College, Chicago
Let us simply say that the desire for painting remains, and
that this desire is not entirely programmed or subsumed by the market:
this desire is the sole factor of a future possibility of painting...
Yve-Alain Bois (from “Painting: the Task of Mourning”)
Over half a century ago, the German theorist Walter Benjamin speculated on the future of the hand-made image in an age of mechanical reproduction. For a good part of his intellectual life, Benjamin struggled with the question of an art work's aura, that mystical intangible that seems to disseminate from a painting and which imbues that work with its power of uniqueness and seduction. Joseph Mann still believes in that aura, the lunar pull of hand crafted images constructed in part through careful observation and in part through the imagination and memory. Moreover, Joseph Mann draws inspiration from that long tradition of his craft, art history, mining this atavistic connection with the past: from the first cave artists to the Egyptians, from the Renaissance to the great early modernists, Cezanne, Picasso, and Matisse, who have become Mann's spiritual mentors.
As I have stated above, Joseph Mann continues to make unique works that are created with the hand and the mind in the time honored materials of oil paint and canvas, of charcoal and hand-made paper despite the recent developments of postmodernism. These developments have increasingly involved appropriation and simulation - - images lifted from other sources as diverse as fine art and mass media as well as second or third generation (re)presentations or the ultimate simulacrum, the computer image. In the flurry of these mechanically reproduced images, Mann opts to work from life, often from the figure, with patience and deliberation.
Furthermore, much of Mann's imagery is created out of a continual struggle with paint directly on the canvas. Unlike many artists of the recent past, such as minimalist painters Frank Stella, Robert Mangold and the Pop artists, Warhol and Lichtenstein, whose imagery was generally worked out in advance with the actual finished painting after the fact, Mann instead, prefers to create his images directly out of the paint, alchemically, through the power of his vision and imagination.
These skills do not come easy. They are developed tenaciously by Mann through constant practice: he spends endless hours drawing from the figure in workshops or observing nature through oil studies completed at Ragdale, an artists' retreat. It is this wealth of knowledge of his subjects and his materials that Joseph Mann brings to the blank canvas, that existential arena, as the critic Harold Rosenberg used to call it.
Finally, Joseph Mann is a generous artist. He wants the viewer to share in his experience of the world, to share in his delight in creating that experience on canvas. Its all there on the canvas. He lets the viewer witness how the image is constructed through numerous brushmarks and color decisions. Nothing in the work is simply or conventionally rendered. These paintings are a record of a restless searching for the right form or shape, the right color or texture, the right composition that is convincing on the deepest level. The spirit of Cezanne's doubt is always present in these works. Joseph Mann, with this new body of work, continues to meet the challenge of painting in the late twentieth century with personal vision and conviction.