Dry Agonies of a Baffled Lust
15 April – 21 May 2021
Josh Lilley is pleased to present Dry Agonies of a Baffled Lust, a major suite of new ceramic sculpture by Rebecca Manson displayed through the five spaces of the gallery. It is the American artist’s first exhibition in the UK.
Rebecca Manson is a graduate of the ceramics department of the Rhode Island School of Design, a bedrock American institution for the progression of materials and material discourse in contemporary art. Her work is made with both a high-grade technical toolbox and an unfussy disregard for breakable rules. Her subject is nature and its lessons, observed in her gardens and surroundings in the countryside immediately north of New York City.
End of Season Sunflowers is a pair of the bright blooms next to each other, the size of a large and a small human being. They tell — instantly and inescapably — of the relationship between parent and child. The head of the large flower has reached the point where it is too heavy for its neck. It is a painful, uncertain moment, amplified by a masterfully engineered use of materials. We ache too — it is a strain we can feel. The smaller flower watches.
A thick patch of bountiful Perennials, a tangle of the wild, hangs together as delicately as actual flowers. Manson explains that managing this structure with heavy clay is all about the points of connection, building stability in the intersections between the elements of the sculpture. The work opens up, effortlessly, to metaphors of support, systems and relationships. “It is only through interaction that they’re viable,” she says, evocatively.
Crest is a wall relief, depicting a flayed chest and the bones below. Flowers too, and tentacles, and teeth. It is “anxiety-fueled,” Manson readily admits, the mixing of plant, animal and human, the improvisation and quick execution of ideas. We may consider this work in the context of Bernard Palissy, the 16th-century French ceramicist whose so-called rusticware writhing with crawling bugs or swimming snakes brought intense, entire wildlife indoors, a snapshot of coexistence and chaos on a fancy bowl. Crest is a cornucopia of unbridled forms, fixed together, revealing abundantly more.
Lungs, a work of extraordinary delicacy, was made by dipping hydrangeas in deflocculated clay, whose rearranged molecules make it both smooth-flowing and tacky. Whatever sticks, sticks — the clay clings to the fine network of branches. She might dip again. Manson fires the coated plant, and when it comes out of the kiln its ash is inside the work. She casts both a ghost and a vessel. “Nature is straightforward,” Manson explains. “Part of its mechanism is to die.” Standing in for a pair of lungs in this work, the flowers call to our mechanisms, the fragility of our own systems and our own fragility and fear in dealing with them. They call to our beauty too.
The title of this exhibition, Dry Agonies of a Baffled Lust, comes from the great searcher Thomas Mann’s Disillusionment, an 1896 short story in which a man describes his journey to feel emotion as deeply as it can be felt. This journey toward transcendence, the journey of his lifetime, ends in a grim discovery. He falls in love, he feels love, and has his heart broken; he feels total joy, and then total despair, and then, he recovers. He moves on. The true horror of heartbreak, it turns out, is the realization that it is both temporary and mundane. “Is that all there is?” he asks himself on his deathbed.
Manson’s sculptures of observed nature address life and death. They cannot avoid it, operating as they do in the allegorical, ancient tradition of the still life, which is the portraiture of nature — bursting and rotting and dripping and expiring and gleaming, the highs and lows, the readily available fireworks of a life cycle. But they also push for a world of interpretation past the romantic extremes of this tradition. Manson’s works look for ways to tell of the shading in between the powerful, magnetic narratives of love and loss that drive our emotions. Picking up from Mann’s disappointed narrator, Manson searches for the perfect validation of feeling, but this time she’s not looking for a monolithic answer. She’s looking at the details, the stuff in between. Big feelings fade, and the grass keeps growing. All there is after love and loss is a lifetime of daily reality, changing with each sunrise. That may actually be all there is, and there’s a lot there.