Ross Manning: Ambient Works Vol. 2

Milani Gallery, Brisbane, 22 March—14 April 2018

Looking at the whole history of painting it could be argued that painting too is a transformer, a convergent medium, inherently a changeling, a morphological engine producing novel ways of being different from what it has been in the past. [1]

Brisbane based artist Ross Manning is known for his kinetic sculptural installations that repurpose everyday technology to manipulate light and sound. Having worked as an electronics technician before he began his art practice, Manning has developed a finely tuned understanding of the technology behind household electronics. One of his most recognisable works is his Spectra series (2012–2017), which repurposes fans and fluorescent tubes to create mesmerising displays of light, movement and sound. With this knowledge of his installation-based practice, I was surprised to see that Ambient Works Vol. 2, on display at Milani Gallery in Brisbane, includes a series of canvas-based works, which Manning refers to as ‘paintings’.

Upon entering the gallery one would be forgiven for thinking they have stumbled into a Robert Hunter exhibition—eight largely white, primed, stretched canvases are sparsely installed around the room. Three large, square works, measuring 200 x 200 centimetres, occupy a wall each. The fourth wall is lined with a row of four smaller rectangular works, punctuated by a circular canvas hung in the centre. As the door closes and the eyes adjust, scatterings of luminous geometric forms are revealed to be floating on each canvas’s surface.

These colourful patches of light are cast by small pieces of dichroic glass that puncture the surface, mounted perpendicular to the picture plane. The glass contains micro layers of metals, which split the light and transmit various colours of the spectrum. Dichroic glass filters are often used in data projectors to fragment white light into red, green and blue. Manning has used these filters previously—notably in his immersive installation Dichroic Filter Piece (2012–17), which sends dazzling, coloured lights spinning around a darkened room, resembling displays of an aurora. The new works, however, are static and placed in a fully lit room; the effect here is more subtle. The different hues of the glass itself and the light it reflects overlap and interplay delicately as the viewer moves around the work and as the light changes throughout the day.

There’s a noticeable shift in ambience in Manning’s exhibition as one enters the upper gallery at Milani. Climbing the stairs, I hear a faint, static buzz and the light becomes dimmer with each step. A large, sculptural work sits in the centre of the darkened room: assembled on a low plinth, various coloured fluorescent tubes glow softly, plasma globes radiate pink and purple tendrils of light, and short wave radios emit static. Titled Ambient Floor Piece (2018), this work is more in line with what I would expect from Manning. It’s less contained than the ‘paintings’ downstairs, and is more of an immersive installation than a discrete sculpture. It’s atmospheric.

Interestingly, the fluorescent lamps are not connected to electricity—rather, they are receiving energy from the plasma, which is sending out electromagnetic radiation (EMR). This is also what is causing the radios to produce static. Manning explains that the same EMR radiates out of phones, televisions, and most electronic devices, as well as from the sun and deep space. He adds, ‘I wanted to use these unseen energies as a kind of material to “perform” the work’. [2] In a recent interview, Manning commented on his interest in the rhythm or recycling of energy, noting, ‘There’s no more or less energy in a system, it just changes forms’. [3] It is tempting to go on discussing ideas around such systems of energy and the technology behind Manning’s sculptural installations, or to delve into the artist’s ‘hacking’ of everyday electronics to create works of art. However, much has already been written on these topics and it seems more pressing to investigate the works on canvas downstairs—a noticeable departure from his previous works—to understand how they fit into the system of ideas that informs Manning’s practice.

It is important to note that the artist has titled each of his canvas works Ambient Painting, despite their unmistakable lack of paint. This raises the question: if the artist had no intention to paint onto the canvases, then why use canvases at all? He could have mounted the glass directly onto the wall, or on board, or any white surface that would show up the coloured light. It seems that the artist wants us to consider these works as a kind of painting—after all, they are colour applied to a solid surface—which does sound a lot like painting. It is worth to considering these works within Mark Titmarsh’s idea of ‘expanded painting’, which the artist and lecturer discusses in his recent publication that takes an ontological approach to the medium. Titmarsh writes:

Thinking reflexively, expanded painting appears as a medium deepening itself through self-questioning. It questions itself at a formal level, challenging surface, colour and image, digging down to a series of questions: What is essential to painting? What can be removed or added to painting? Can paint be removed from painting? Can sculpture be added to painting and so on. [4]

Titmarsh goes on to chart the evolution of painting through the twentieth century, noting important milestones such as El Lissitzky’s Proun works (1919–27) and Vladimir Tatlin’s Corner Counter-relief (1914–15) both of which exceeded the confines of the canvas, and contributed to modern art’s evolution beyond the picture plane. [5] Manning, however, known for his installation and new media works, is incorporating painting into his oeuvre. From this perspective, could we consider all of Manning’s works as a form of expanded painting?

Many exhibitions have explored contemporary understandings of painting. One example is a project that took place in Vienna in 2013 called Why Painting Now? The project involved a series of concurrent exhibitions looking at the way painting is constantly redefining itself, and considering a wider concept of painting that engages with other media. In discussing the proverbial death of painting, the project’s curator, Eva Maria Stadler, argues, ‘it is not so much the end of genres that we find proclaimed but rather their redefinition through a critical examination of their respective qualities.’ [6] If we examine the qualities of painting—such as colour, light and composition—it’s possible to consider a new definition of the medium: one which encompasses Manning’s Ambient Paintings and his installation practice.

Manning’s attentiveness to light and colour are certainly inherent in his new canvas works, but also in his floor piece. While it doesn’t involve a canvas or hang on a wall, Ambient Floor Piece articulates the relationship between light and colour as much as his Ambient Paintings do. Both works draw our attention to the quality of light and encourage us to engage with the phenomena that we rarely notice and take for granted. If we consider Manning’s practice as a system of ideas about light and colour, it makes sense to contextualise his work within the field of expanded painting.

As Manning said about energy, there’s no more or less of it in a system, it just changes forms. The artworks’ titles—Ambient Painting 1–8 and Ambient Floor Piece—suggest that these objects are sitting in relation to their immediate surroundings. Although visually quite different, they are part of the same system of ideas about light and colour—they’re just changing forms.

[1] Mark Titmarsh, Expanded Painting: Ontological Aesthetics and the Essence of Colour, Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2017, p. 6.

[2] Personal communication with the author (28 March 2018).

[3] IMA. Ross Manning ‘Dissonant Rythms’ Interview. https://vimeo.com/253200380, 28 March 2018.

[4] Titmarsh, op. cit.

[5] Ibid, p. 17.

[6] Stadler, Eva Maria. Why Painting Now?, Curated by Vienna, 2014. https://viennabusinessagency.at/fileadmin/user_upload/Kreativwirtschaft/curated_by/Archiv/cb2013_einzelseiten.pdf, 29 March 2018.

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Installation view, Ambient Works Vol.2. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery.

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Ross Manning, Ambient Painting # 1, 2018. Acrylic, stainless steel and dichroic glass on canvas, 200 x 200 cm. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery.

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Ross Manning, Ambient Painting # 8, 2018. Acrylic, stainless steel and dichroic glass on canvas, 200 x 200 cm. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery.

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Ross Manning, Ambient Painting # 8, 2018. Acrylic, stainless steel and dichroic glass on canvas, 200 x 200 cm. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery.

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Installation view, Ambient Works Vol.2. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery.

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Ross Manning, Ambient Painting # 7 (detail), 2018. Acrylic, stainless steel and dichroic glass on canvas, 200 x 200 cm. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery.

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Ross Manning, Ambient Painting # 1 (detail), 2018. Acrylic, stainless steel and dichroic glass on canvas, 200 x 200 cm. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery.

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Ross Manning, Ambient Floor Piece, 2018. Mirrors, plasma, fluorescent lights, short wave radios and acrylic on MDF, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery.

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Ross Manning, Ambient Floor Piece, 2018. Mirrors, plasma, fluorescent lights, short wave radios and acrylic on MDF, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery.

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Ross Manning, Ambient Floor Piece, 2018. Mirrors, plasma, fluorescent lights, short wave radios and acrylic on MDF, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery.

Katherine Dionysius is a curator, writer and editor. She is Head of Research at 89plus, an international, curatorial research project co-curated by Simon Castets and Hans Ulrich Obrist. Through 89plus, she has developed exhibitions, residencies and events in New York, London, Paris, Zurich, Shanghai and Mexico City, among others. In Brisbane, Katherine works as Curatorial Assistant at QUT Art Museum, and is a board member at Outer Space ARI. Her writing has been published by Kaleidoscope Magazine, Das Platforms, QUT Art Museum, Metro Arts and Boxcopy. She recently completed the Columbia Publishing Course and a publishing mentorship at Swiss Institute in New York, as part of the Lord Mayor’s Young and Emerging Artists Fellowships supported by Brisbane City Council.

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