Joseph Mann: Recent Paintings and Drawings

Ken Dixon

This month at the University of Portland's Buckley Center Gallery we have a rare opportunity to see some of the latest work of one of Oregon's most gifted artists, Joseph Mann. A highly sought-after instructor (he won Willamette Week's 1999 "Best Of" award), he can be a diffident and grudging exhibitor. While his work is not what one would call autobiographical in any proper sense, it is nonetheless very personal. Mann has invested himself deeply in the fight to bring it to fruition and, as a consequence, he has become notoriously reluctant to allow it out of his studio. While a few pictures have been available in Chicago and New York, his last show in the Portland area was at the Augen Gallery two years ago.

Like Morandi, and Giacometti (two of the art world's most famous obsessives), Mann has devoted himself to a severely restricted number of themes. His paintings are almost invariably of two or three generic figures arranged in an anonymous interior space. They are dramatic, grabbing pictures ostensibly about relationships—pictures with an immediate, at-first-sight attractiveness. This "attractiveness," and the deceptively simple means by which it appears to have been achieved, makes these pictures vulnerable to underestimation. The old debate about "beauty" in art has recently become new again, and these are pictures that assert the radical proposition that it is possible for a work to be both stunning and authentic simultaneously.

The figures that populate Mann's paintings have a general tendency to be clothed (as opposed to those of his drawings, where they are usually nude). If they are female—and most of them are—they are anachronistically gowned. They present a genteel formality that suggests everything from classical court paintings to contemporary scenes of the chiffon-centric Southern cotillion. They are emblematic, featureless figures who, with little more than position and posture, generate an impressive number of narrative possibilities.

But narration is not really what Mann's work is primarily about. These are modern paintings and, as such, their central concern is with painting itself. While due consideration has been given to content, the real struggle is not with "story"—it is with form and facture, it is with the visual elements of painting. If we must say these pictures are about something, we must say they are about the orchestration of the dialogue both within and between the narrative and visual elements. The obsessional tinkering is about getting the music right.

Stylistically, Mann's work alludes to the most generous side of the minimalist family aesthetic. Disregarding the polar touchstones of modern art—the grotesquely grim and the ironically frivolous—he has ignored the latest "isms" to pursue whatever it is painters pursue when they go one-on-one with their private imperatives.

As Mann has restricted his number of themes, he has also restricted his pallet. He rarely uses more than a few colors. As with the figures, these colors are carefully considered and arranged. They are often applied in a heavy, calibrated impasto, one on top of another, and used in a literary way, like subtexts, adding additional levels of richness to the work. He is especially good with black. He never allows it to become overpowering or oppressive; he makes its inherent significance work for him—in fact, he highlights it.

If there is a particular excellence that contributes disproportionately to the success of these pictures, it is probably balance. A mysterious thing, its deepest secrets are unteachable, its essence being in more than just the organization of volumes and voids. Basically a classical virtue, it is not the flashiest of fundamentals; but when it is handled like it is in these pictures, it can be something to marvel at.

In the end, if there is a key to the magic that makes these pictures work where others might not, it is instinct. This instinct, the painter's instinct, is unexplainable, irreducible, and a priori. In Mann's case, it is also pretty much unerring.