Bridge 38 Galley, Richmond, November 10th – 30th, 2016
Attending an exhibition opening can be a bit like going on a blind date. What if I don’t like the work? What will I say? Painting can go so wrong and often does. But in this small gallery in the heart of Richmond, sixteen paintings demonstrate that Harley Manifold knows what he is doing with paint. His surfaces are articulate, composite, layered. Colour is calibrated into convincing form.
Large canvases set the theme; a moody urban, impersonal milieu, a world that feels slightly subterranean, a place of electric lights and solo figures. His enigmatic everyman is engrossed in his tablet; holding up a screen, he is screened from us. I am reminded of Magritte’s The Son of Man – that bowler-hatted man with an apple in front of his face. The metaphors seem to multiply – the apple, fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, a symbol of desire. Now an iconic brand, it promises more information than knowledge, and we are insatiable. Manifold seems absorbed by this modern introspection, watching the watcher, which is he? These paintings put you on the outside and the inside at the same time.
The online echo chamber is our new mirror– we check we still exist, ponder deeply about trivia and far flung facts. The titles of Manifold’s paintings poke fun at the snippets of headlines that drift, unmoored from meaning. Phelps ties for silver in 100 fly Ledecky sets world record in women’s 800 freestyle, or At least 73 people were killed and 120 people injured in Nice. This artist is drawn to mirrors as well as screens; his protagonist is frequently reflected ghost like, partly absent in body as well as mind. The recurring motif of the bathroom is less about bodily function than about a private world, a sleek reflective interior space offering the formal complexities with which the artist likes to juggle. The same formal concerns inform the more industrial settings. Volumes of positive and negative space thrust forwards and hollow backwards from the surface plane constructing a well balanced dynamism within the pictorial space.
It is not possible to look at these pictures without thinking of famous forebears in this territory of the urban world and the single figure. Jeffrey Smart’s twisting Cahill Expressway has a similar push and pull as Manifold’s Ping Ping Ping Ping. A keen eye for formal concerns is native to both painters. Rick Amor’s unremittingly melancholic urban settings are often occupied by a lone figure. The greatest difference here is in mood. Manifold’s world is a shadowy place, with lurking uncertainties but is counterpointed with quirky interjections. His surfaces are loaded with delicate colour, vibrant with possibility. There is a whiff of Wonderland here, Alice might appear instead of #mrboxy (Manifold’s other obscured character, a man wearing a box). Smart’s formal sense and Amor’s, gothic noir may inform but do not dominate this work. This is progeny not pastiche, an authentic vision in skilled hands.