Reflections on Works by British artist Joanna Manousis at Atmosphere Gallery in Neusole Glassworks
February 23 – March 30, 2013
By Marta Hewett, owner of Marta Hewett Gallery exhibiting contemporary art for over 20 years
Joanna Manousis displays the thoughtful decision making and control of media that allow her to successfully break out of the identification as a “glass artist” and bring her works squarely into the realm of contemporary art. Her glass and mixed media pieces are wrought with symbol, history and mysterious ambiguity. Although the technical challenges in her works are daunting, the pieces remain evocative and don’t get bogged down in material. Manousis effectively uses the intentionally selected, intrinsic properties of glass, to communicate her complex ideas.
This young artist is currently best known for her series of Self Contained Sprays, four of which are presented in the center of this exhibit. Larger than life, these blown glass spray bottles have trapped within them the distorted faces of 50’s era women of iconic beauty, delicately rendered in hand painted enamels. These are the only pieces in the exhibit which depict human countenance. These domestic genies with heavily lashed eyes and pouty lips are squeezed into conical cleaning containers and stare out at the viewer. In her sketchbook, which is available to look through as part of the exhibit, Manousis notes next to one of her drawings, “Look and behold the image of perfection….strong, dutiful and true. Simply press the nozzle and out she sprays. Reflected in its chamber…is it you? Is it me? Who is she?” Out she sprays as what? Will she be liberated or obliterated? These signature works are simultaneously funny and frightening.
These “liminal moments” as the artist’s calls them in a highly charged description about her work, are periods of ambiguity during transitions from one personal state to another. Cultural anthropologist, Victor Turner, described these periods of personal flux, in the late 60’s, as rites of passage, coming of age, and marriage being two of his examples. Others could include becoming a parent and acknowledging death. During these transitions, explains Turner, the individual is first separated from their previous identification, then progresses through this liminal, or transformational period, and is ultimately re-assimilated into society with a new status. This liminal state Turner coins as “betwixt and between”, where individuals do not belong to the society that they were previously part of and they are not yet reincorporated into their new society. Liminality is a limbo. It is existence on the outer edge in an intermediate condition. In religious terms, this limbo exists between Heaven, the union with God and Hell, separation from God. It seems that the acknowledgement of this limbo as a liminal moment is more significant as we consider our own mortality and also consider Manousis’ work.
In Inverted Vanitas, an exquisitely fashioned pomegranate with velvety pate de verre (paste of glass) skin, sits in front of a massive clear cast glass frame with elaborate decoration. The fruit’s interior is bursting with succulent, blood red seeds which are covered in part by a highly polished, mirrored membrane, which reflects the viewer’s face. A withered grape stem sits shriveled beside an almost empty wine glass and the ripened pomegranate. It is a subject worthy of any 16th or 17th Century Flemish painter. Artists from the Netherlands, Flanders and France developed this particular genre of symbolic still life painting, or vanitas, which incorporated morbid objects, skulls, fading flowers, decaying food, to illustrate the brevity of life, dissolution of the physical body and inevitable death. It has been postulated that the pomegranate was actually the forbidden fruit eaten by Adam and Eve, who by disobeying God, committed original sin, and brought death to Mankind. But possibly, there is also hope reflected in the ruddy fruit, a liberation after death. The pomegranate is also viewed as a symbol of fecundity, fertility and renewal. The goddess Persephone, abducted wife of Hades, Greek God of Death, returned to Earth’s surface once a year with Spring in her wake. Persephone is often depicted carrying a pomegranate and so, early Christians also adopt the fruit, already prominent in Jewish iconography, as a symbol of the Resurrection and triumph over death. This fecund fruit appears to be a favorite subject of the artist.
In contrast to the decadent, visceral , yet possibly redemptive response to mortality presented in Inverted Vanitas, Ladles of Teeth, displayed immediately to its right, is a Danse Macabre. Five precisely finished, colorless, cast glass ladles are arranged in various angled positions, handles upright, on a pedestal. They are engaged in a jaunty dance. A ladle is used to serve soups and stews, meals mostly of liquid. These ladles are bone dry with bowls full of holes like a sieve. Unlike the previous work with reference to wine and ripeness, there is no liquid present here. Upon closer inspection, the viewer discovers a variety of teeth, yellow teeth, “wisdom teeth”, as described by the artist, realistically wrought, roots and all, clustered and strewn inside three of the ladles and slipping through the holes onto the pedestal. Wisdom teeth present themselves typically between the ages of 16 and 25, that “coming of age” or liminal, transformative period between adolescence and adulthood. In previous exhibits, explains Manousis, visitors were invited to pluck these teeth from the ladles and eat them. They are cast in sugar. The Danse Macabre genre, which developed in the late Middle Ages,(1400 – 1500) focused upon the universality of death, regardless of age or social station. Those living at the time embraced a frenzied hunger for amusement in the ever present shadow of sudden death. The prospect of possibly eating these remaining teeth, other peoples’ teeth and having them dissolve in your mouth, evokes a unnerved giggle and a gag. Like the luscious pomegranate, the flesh will eventually deteriorate and disappear no matter how robust. Teeth and bone are all that remain after death. In the Medieval legend of the “Three Living and Three Dead”, several taunting corpses remind a group of young courtiers in the midst of their revels that, “What we were, you are: what we are you will be.” In Ladles of Teeth, it seems death and the final disappearance of all that is flesh, after years of eating and primping and playing is an inevitable joke. Ironically, in the middle of this review, the artist informed me that she had to have her wisdom teeth removed.
There are five additional works included in this exhibit. Four of the pieces are presented in a similar format and consist of wonderfully optical, colorless, solid cast glass jars with eggs, birds and the ever present pomegranate encased inside. With titles like Distilled Portrait and Pickling Jars, we are given the distinct impression that there is a transformation happening inside these tightly lidded containers, which bring us back to the Self Contained Sprays . Distilling is a process of purification and pickling is a process of preservation which prevents physical decay and spoiling. Purification or preservation? Do the those domestic genies, “the image of perfection”, have a choice to escape their bottles as purified mist or remain inside, physically preserved beauties, yet pickled? Is the artist presenting us with a choice? Interestingly, the “objects” floating in jars are not objects at all, but actually negative, empty space created in the glass casting process, mirror images of the real objects from which the molds were made. It is worth mentioning that the bird sitting atop the pomegranate inside the jar of Distilled Portrait is a particular species, a magpie, is purported to be of extreme intelligence with the ability to recognize the reflection of its physical body in a mirror.
Finally, there is a wall piece, Reaching Ulterior Realms, which at first glance was the most immediate and least interesting work in this show. Six mylar balloons, with mirrored surfaces float lazily in front of the wall at different levels towards the ceiling. They are relatively the same size, life size, and have the same mirrored surface, save one. As you approach these balloons you are able to see your reflection, as well as the reflection of the room and exhibit behind you in the shiny surface. These objects are deceiving as they are not balloons at all, but very meticulously cast, solid glass forms, complete with tightly wrinkled edges. They are truly a success in trompe l’oeil. Four large golden arrows, fashioned of cast bronze have been launched into the wall and are embedded randomly between the floating objects. Although, the lowest balloon has suffered a direct hit and is pinned to the wall. As air escapes, the balloon has become very crinkled. It has lost its reflective quality, begins to turn dark and sags. The other balloons full to bursting with air, continue their ascent oblivious to the fate of their partner. I am reminded again of the recognition of the randomness of sudden death. What is the Ulterior, or hidden realm? Is it the reflection of the real world seen in the balloons, which disappears when they are pierced? Is it the realm to which the intact objects ascend, which is beyond our view? In the context of the exhibit, this piece is poignant. Removed from the other works, it may appear simply as a tour de force of craftsmanship.
In the end, Joanna Manousis does presents us with exceptionally crafted works. Her attention to detail and decision making is evident. It is the artist’s remarkable control of her material that allows her to explore ideas of transition and transformation in an engaging manner. The viewer’s response is not a fascination because these pieces are created in glass. They are created in glass because that medium is the most appropriate choice for these works, based upon its physical qualities of optics, distortion, transparency, fragility and reflection. These are exceedingly complex and subtly layered pieces that deserve the viewer’s contemplation and place the medium of glass, in the hands of this artist, clearly in the realm of contemporary art.