… and the sea invaded the night
di Lucy Watson
In the video … and the sea invaded the night included in the project “Painting in a photograph”, each scene is meticulously composed. Manfredi ensures the focus of the “set” is skilfully balanced so that neither painting nor photograph becomes a mere backdrop to the other. Manfredi uses the same painting repeatedly throughout each series of “scene changes”; its silent stillness becomes a permanent and inescapable presence in contrast to the “theatre” of everyday life played out before it. We open in “Red Vision”, a bleak hovel, where an elderly peasant woman looks out at the viewer as if to question what place this austere painting could have in her home or for that matter her life. When the painting appears again, it is in a morgue. Yet the work hangs beautifully here, the colour of blood, and cruelly proportionate with the white slabs; there is no person to question its presence in this place. The painting in “Infinite Message”, again uncompromisingly symmetrical, looms above the every day scenes. The only obvious connection between it and the world outside are the primary yellows reflected in the sofa in the living room, the mechanics’ overalls in the garage and the naked electric light above the chapel altar. So with each piece commences a narrative the meanings of which seem destined to be perpetually argued; the more we try to make sense of the relationship of the painting and its environment, the more unfathomable it seems to become. This seems particularly true in “Green surface”, where the viewer becomes voyeur to a private trauma shared by two girls and to which only the painting is silent witness. We are offered just a glimpse or “still” of the scene, the painting hanging above immutable and permanent, heightening our perceptions of time passing, regardless of mortal life affected by change and circumstance.
Yet, as in all great tragic dramas, when we begin to feel overwhelmed by the gravity of it all, Manfredi allows the viewer some welcome comic relief, and this he manages with a flare of artistic genius. None of the “shock” antics of contemporary art in the past decade have so far made as memorable an impression on me as the concluding piece to this series. Indecorously dropping his work to carpet level, Manfredi makes it play mirror to a woman’s legs.
As the scenes of the “play” continue in each photograph, the tension mounts again as the painting assumes an almost iconographic status beyond human contact. It is only on one occasion that someone actually acknowledges its presence, and that is by a child. “Travel into Memory” seems to suggest that, as we grow older, our accumulative experience and knowledge, eclipses our ability to “see” beyond reality. In part two, the painting lies partly obscured in a shadowy interior, images of the Madonna and child are visible among a vast clutter of discarded toys. Could this image symbolise our adulthood, devoid of the unquestioning beliefs and imagination that is so much a part of a child’s existence?
We follow on into the bedroom and into the final series. The painting unsettles the mood here by focusing our attention on the raw sexuality that permeates the scene and an accompanying sense of ‘loss of innocence’. Again the viewer turns voyeur, having arrived too late and missed the action, all we witness is a woman on the point of leaving; the painting, present throughout, reveals nothing. We must use our imagination to fill the void and complete the story for ourselves, as the painting above the bed ensures we sense something beyond the human experience depicted.
It is left to ask whether Manfredi succeeds in his objective in closing the distance between his art and real life? I feel the argument crystallises in the final piece of “Absolute silence”. The ideals of abstract minimalism become like jetsam floating on the incoming tide going nowhere; or could it now in its new context, like a raft cast out to sea, become a symbol of embarkation and voyage to different places or to numerous and various paths of discovery? There is one thing though of which we can be certain. By radically reinventing his art, Manfredi achieves a unique symbiosis between the prosaic and the sublime. One cannot exist without the other. To remove the painting from the scene, all sense of enigma evaporates, seeing the painting alone on the gallery wall and it becomes remote once more, speaking only to a cultural elite. This work now speaks not just more about the artist’s own life, but our life, in all its ordinary and extraordinary manifestations. Ultimately, Manfredi humanises his work, but maybe in a more ways than he intended, by ensuring that when we move on, it remains with us.
Lucy Watson is Museum Collection Administrator
at Central Saint Martins College of Art, London