Unnatural Color: Jeremy Mangan at Linda Hodges

Just Right – 2012 – oil and acrylic on canvas – 18 x 24 in.

Linda Hodges Gallery consistently shows artworks that are technically exquisite, but many are also united by a thematic thread—humanity’s relationship with (the rest of) nature. I like this consistency about the gallery, especially as it becomes evident through many shows that it is a subject that can never be exhausted. Indeed, the artists in this category are all distinct in their styles and perspectives, tending toward philosophy rather than commentary (which I also appreciate). Jeremy Mangan is among them, and his current show displays how even one artist can display a range of emotion—and ample ambivalence—in approaching this subject.

Harbor Crossing – 2012 – oil and acrylic on panel – 40 x 30 in.

I needn’t to belabor the fineness of Mangan’s technique. The paintings all display a mastery of light, the illusion of texture and depth, and novel composition. We gaze skyward at Eagle Kites. We peer voyeuristically through a dense Alder Stand. We see sky, earth, and water bound together through a ramshackle Harbor Crossing.

But Mangan’s real mastery is in his tone, his ability to capture what I might call a mirthful alienation, and I would like to unpack that a bit. In particular, Mangan’s unexpected use of color is arresting and creates an underlying current of feeling and abstraction in otherwise formal representations. In other words, the images are precise but suggest that nothing is at it seems.

Individuals—especially artists—like to resist comparison, but how else can one really trace distinctions between artists and explain why some art works and some doesn’t? Andrew Wyeth has been on my mind lately for personal reasons, and Mangan’s skill and dreamy ambivalence made me think of certain pastoral works by the former, but Wyeth’s palette and humor were equally muted, whereas Mangan is boisterous. Through Mangan, an austere, graffiti-spattered canyon edge forms a subliminal smile inexplicably spewing colored streamers from its lip in the exuberant Congratulations, Canyon. I laughed aloud when I saw it. More saliently, Wyeth focused on human figures and in Mangan’s work we see only the evidence of human existence through structures and streamers and broken kites. This absence of human figures  and emphasis on human “containers” is worth noting.

Congratulations, Canyon – 2012 – oil and acrylic on canvas – 52.5 x 69.5 in.

Just left of the gallery entrance, visitors will find Just Right, which depicts a tiny cabin, lit within, in a snowy wilderness under a thick sky ready to bury the landscape under more snow. It occurred to me that it might be dismissed as a cliche at first glance. (One can’t get around that as a representational painter, and I’m happy that Mangan appears unperturbed by this.) But you would not find this painting on any Hallmark cards and it rewards a closer inspection. Though its title alludes to an ideal/idyll, it is not sentimental in any way. The landscape is harsh, the structure crude and small but tidy. It seems to have only two rooms, but ten chimneys of various size project from the roof and ooze white smoke, quietly alluding to the amount of energy required to create a shelter in the vast. One imagines an interior more like an oven than a home and senses that this object only exists here by force of will and endurance.

Chicken Coop – 2012 – oil and acrylic on panel – 12 x 16 in.

Mangan gives us repeated instances of human presence without showing us any humans. he offers no narrative for the colorful structures he places on mountaintops and thick forests. What might be considered invasive is given a lightness by his use of color. The obscured home in Alder Stand could have been dour and ominous, but the bright bands of primary colors proudly proclaim its presence. However, the unexpected color can also be deeply eerie, invading manmade structures with something alien. In a twilit field, the dark planks of a Chicken Coop bar a vivid red glow filling the structure. Mangan plays with the ambivalence of colors themselves here—warmth and oppressive heat, violence and security all at once. Whatever may be happening here, we are not inclined to call it “natural.”

But therein lies the essence of the mirthful alienation I mentioned. The tendency to separate humanity from nature is anthropocentric and fallacious in the final assessment, and yet humans are quite unlike anything else in nature that we know. Mangan seems to take joy in this and his paintings invite the viewer to experience that. Furthermore, being removed from something allows for keener observation, so this alienation from nature (and from these depictions of human intervention within nature) allow us moments of clarity about our tenuous place in the vast with a welcome dash of colorful optimism.

Jeremy Mangan’s works are on display through December 1st. All images are courtesy of Linda Hodges Gallery.