If you've ever stripped the walls in an old house, you know what it is to conduct a laborious domestic excavation.
You're like an archaeologist, only instead of uncovering layers of dirt and rock, you burrow through wallpaper and paint, picking up poignant clues about the people who lived in the place before you. A rose-patterned paper, perhaps, reveals the long-ago presence of a little girl, while a stern plaid suggests the quarters of a no-nonsense male. And if you ever undertake to strip the walls in your own childhood home, the journey is even more emotionally fraught. You literally travel back into your own past, and the achingly familiar wallpaper patterns have a startling power to call up old memories.
In a new installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art called Tropic of Memory, Jason Manley explores this phenomenon. But since he doesn't have a wall of layered wallpapers at hand, he's had to construct one. His new, freestanding gallery wall, "Portal," is made up of dozens of old patterned wallpapers, one atop the other, with insulation and plaster added in between for realism's sake. The top seems to be regulation sheetrock. Before the show opened, Manley punched a long, narrow tunnel into this thick creation, and threw the debris--a colorful mix of pink foam insulation, plaster scraps and wallpaper--onto the floor nearby.
His homemade portal into the past travels 6 feet deep into the wall, rimmed all along its route by fragments of old, printed wallpapers--big golden leaves, pink flowers, crisscross stripes. You have the sense of peeking deep into the past, into a treasure trove of fleeting human desires, literally represented by these humble printed patterns. You can just picture people now long dead pluckily sprucing up their homes with wallpapers just like these, gamely trying to make a fresh start.
The serious black-and-tan plaid must have been for a room where someone intended to do important work. Perhaps a woman now grown old pasted up rolls of the printed orange coffee pots back in the 1950s, when she was a cheerful, young housewife, her whole married life still before her. These wallpapers were all somebody's idea of beauty, once upon a time. They're a tender testament to human optimism.
The heart-tugging "Portal" is one of eight multimedia works that explore the way memories are bound to place. In the other pieces, Manley deploys not only the techniques of domestic archaeology, but the tools of the architectural trade. Blueprints, window shades, photos of rooms and furniture, a sculptural door and a chair--its stuffing ripped open to show a similar excavation of upholstery layers--all figure into this nuanced installation. A video, "Portal (Skowkegan)," documents Manley hammering into another wallpaper wall this past summer during an art residency in Maine.
In "Room, Part I," he painted nearly 200 layers of paint onto a piece of wood the shape of door. Then he chipped deep into the layers to create small basins lined with narrow strips of color, like the craters whose markings tip us off to the Earth's geological history. But the geology in question here is the strata of Manley's personal life. In an adjoining painting, "Room, Part 2," the artist recorded every paint color he used on the door--and next to the circles of color he wrote down what was happening the day he painted each one. The statements range from the silly--a note accompanying a dollop of maroon reveals "I spent the past ten minutes looking for my hammer"--to the ominous. Next to a patch of rose, he notes tersely, "2 military planes." Life is made up of such moments, from big portents of war to minor domestic disarray.
A series of blueprint-style drawings in ink on a real window shade delve explicitly into the way a place can trigger memories. "#3 She Used to Talk Into the Vent Like It Was a Telephone" pictures sections of rooms, a hallway, a child's crib, a chest of drawers, all of them telling an elliptical story about the artist's life and relationships. A text connects the images to a remembered event. A bedroom, he writes, is where an unnamed woman couldn't sleep after an argument; an open door is where "we cried then went for a walk."
A second installation, "Being Workmen" by Tom Miller, is more ambitious than Manley's perhaps, but also more heavy-handed. Miller (not to be confused with the author Tom Miller of Tucson) is a New Mexico artist who got his MFA at the UA. Miller's subject is a hapless man who's a cog in a big corporation, the 21st-century version of the 1950s Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.
Miller is a fine painter, but like Manley he enjoys dipping into the multiple media of contemporary art. He has several videos here, playing both on the wall and flickering over sculptured faces; he's made cartoon paintings and sculptures in plaster, acrylic and fiberglass, and he's even built a small house. The character in all these works is a cartoon-like, middle-aged businessman, a guy with a stereotypical bald head, black horn-rimmed glasses, dark tie, button-down shirt and pot belly.
Much of the time he's faceless, almost inert, as Miller takes him through a thin narrative that assails the shallowness of corporate life. The man conducts assorted deals, presumably nefarious, lives in a soulless suburban tract house, and at length lies on a flower-bedecked ground, apparently driven to an early grave.
In "Untitled (Leverage)" he's been multiplied geometrically, 133 times to be precise. The 133 plaster figures, less than a foot tall, lie on the floor in two straight lines, all of them conforming cogs in the corporate machine. In "Father and Manchild," a video version of this corporate man has him apparently--and inexplicably--about to rape his baby boy, a child who already has grown his own corporate-man face, identical to his dad's. Presumably the father is training the boy to grow up to be just like him.
The acrylic and graphite paintings, the most interesting works in the installation, picture the man in a confused kaleidoscope, tossing and turning pointlessly ("Making Men") or conjuring up the pleasures he might get from his leafy green suburb ("Rain Painting 2").
Lord knows today's multinationals are doing damage the world 'round--can you say Enron? Or Halliburton? And, yes, some men try to jackhammer their sons into narrow definitions of masculinity. But "Being Workmen" seems to be attacking not the villainous Ken Lays or Dick Cheneys at the top, but the hapless middle managers trapped below. It's a bit smug in its contempt for people who have dull jobs, and it doesn't show much compassion for the plight of corporate workers--the ones the profiteers have exploited, spun and mutilated, and then downsized out of their jobs.