Mark Manders: Self Portrait as a Building

by Donald Goddard


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Manders' entire project is called "Self-portrait as a Building," which he began to work on in 1986, when he was 18. In fact, there is a piece in the show called Inhabited for a Survey (First Floorplan for Self-portrait as a Building) of 1986, which is simply an outline (on the floor) made up of ballpoint pens, markers, pencils (stubs and otherwise), pen caps, pencil sharpeners, scissors, nail clippers, paint tubes, a knife, small screwdrivers, a sponge, spoons, an eraser, a divider, paint brushes, and other used objects in the shape of a plan for rooms along a hall with a circular space at each end, something like a basketball court, or, more properly since Manders is Dutch, a football field. It has the symmetry, in rectangles and circles, of a human being, or more evidently the beginnings of a stable structure. Contrarily it is composed of objects that already have a history, that are practically played out, though still useful, that are used in the making of drawings and are often found together in drawers that have no other purpose than to hold them.

In the same room, near the entrance, Table with Paper Walls (Reduced to 88%) of 2002, might have such drawers but doesn't, though is does have a surface to draw on. Almost hidden in the corner is a closed closet, called Closet (2001), which seems to be the meaning of a closet to begin with, seeing that it is unlikely that one could open it or would know what might be in it anyway. It would be possible to draw on the paper that is stacked on and around the table and that confines its surface, except that there are no tools to do so and the stacks of paper are described as walls rather than sheets to draw on. This change in function is emphasized by the way the desk is positioned in the doorway so that one must squeeze through and be careful not to knock down the stacks of paper. So they really are understood as walls, throttling, or at least obviating, the instinct to draw.

The floorplan, table, and closet are not exactly dream items, as they might be in Surrealism; or readymades, as in Duchamp; or products, as in Pop Art. They are neither skewed by desire, nor preexisting forms, nor exaggerated commodities. Certainly, as images, they come from the unconscious, but practically and aesthetically they are functions of thought rather than observation, as Manders has noted, let alone use. They belong to categories that are more than familiar to us, that, in fact, comprise our imaginations as sentient human beings. They are prototypes for a common language, but of course are not the things they represent. They exist on some other plane of reality (reduced to 88%) that is inhabited in a way that can only be known in this way. On the other hand, these works are not metaphorical, in the sense that if one were to knock down the stacks of paper it would be clear that they are physically real. Circular, I know, but it is a circle that is constantly and intensely trying to complete itself, to realize its own existence.

The first room I described, with its three different works from different times, could be a study, a workroom, in the overall "self-portrait." The room next to it is a bedroom, containing a single piece of multiple parts called Room Constructed to Provide Persistent Absence (1998-2001), and is more forbidding, more extreme in its distancing from observation, perhaps in keeping with its inherent privacy. The frames of the bed and the chaise next to it are made of iron, and the bedding of both is gray modeled clay. From the foot of the bed the frame extends out farther to form a kind of seat and in a space between the bed and the seat are neatly placed shoes and a pile of clothes, to be worn by a single person, on top of which are two contact lenses. The rudimentary form of a shortened human figure lies on its back on the chaise, and over a hole in its "head" a ballpoint pen is suspended from an armature attached to the frame of the chaise, as though inspiration were both somnambulant and self-generating, rather than divine. This prison cell, in which everything is hard and dark and featureless, is a substructure preceding the possibilities of life, and the contact lenses are like the disembodied eyes in some of Manders' drawings that see under the skin. Human presence is collapsed into folded clothes and a molded crime-scene outline. A squared metal rod extends between two walls, something to trip on or run into, like the stacks of paper in the other room, as a reminder that these objects and whatever volume of meaning they have reached, really do exist.

The drawings occupy another space entirely. A study for one of the three-dimensional pieces would make no sense simply because there is no way to achieve three dimensions on a flat surface any more than three dimensions can become two dimensions. A drawing's third dimension is the thickness of the paper, and by placing "Several Drawings on Top of Each Other" (the name of a book of drawings by Manders) a distinctive and extremely complex world of images is created in three dimensions, something like a building with many floors. There are just two drawings here, out of what must be hundreds, or thousands. - (Drawing with a Vanishing Point), of 2002, has several line-drawn images (of a monkey, fire, a figure that looks like a clown, and some even more ambiguous shapes) pulled together within the field of vision of a dark, scribbled human figure so that they all seem to come out of, to flower from, him or they disappear through a system of one-point perspective into his eye. What he seems to see best, a blackened, scribbled shape in front of him, is less decipherable than the more peripheral images around it. There is a deliberate confusion about what is out there and how they go together (systems like perspective don't necessarily help), but eventually the constant production and accumulation of a vocabulary leads to the construction of a palpable reality, something like Manders' sculpture. Narrow Chamber, October 8th 2002, 23:14 is even more like this. It is a room constructed of the words "Falling Earring," an image that has appeared in other drawings but here is spelled out with the letters drawn over and over again.


Is there a point at which all matter is the same? Perhaps. I don't know. It seems to be the assumption, and also that there is any number of possibilities, the accretion of which leads to something that is more and more recognizable to us. But, of course, it is impossible to reach that final point, or perhaps there is no final point of materialization. Rope Study (1993) is the projection, side by side, of films of two wall drawings Manders made of prone "clown" figures, something like the one in - (Drawing with a Vanishing Point). It seems pointless to make movies of static drawings, to try to bring them to life that way. But, of course, they do come to life. The films, with all their static and imperfections, scratches and dirt spots, are like our perceptions of things.

by Donald Goddard © 2003


The exhibition was on view at Greene Naftali Gallery, 526 West 26th Street, New York, NY 10001.
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