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The literal and the metaphor in Les Manning's new work: Common/Opposites.

THE CONSENSUS AMONG NEUROSCIENTISTS IS THAT we process both literal and metaphorical information in the same regions of the brain. Essentially the brain does not discriminate between the two types of sensory input and it is only after information is processed that our cognitive mind sorts it all out.


This is the artist's reality and this is maybe a simple definition of the creative process itself; constantly switching between the literal and the metaphor, a binary that can happen thousands of times per second.

In looking at Les Manning's latest body of work in the exhibition Common/Opposites it is evident that there has been a shift. It is somewhat misleading to say that this is a progression or even an evolution, rather I see it as a switch, much like those that happen a thousand times per second in our brain. That is, Manning has chosen to switch his preferred mode of communication from the literal interpretation of an adopted landscape to a metaphorical interpretation of a landscape that is bred into his genetic code.

Manning's previous body of work included vesselbased interpretations of the Rocky Mountain landscape. The creation of this process-based work emulated the actual geology of the landscape itself with various clay and minerals laminated together to form a literal representation of this monumental landscape. Much like the Rocky Mountains that are constantly being altered by tectonic forces, or the glaciers that are under constant compression and tension, Manning's work also internalised these same geological forces, the result of which was the work literally tearing itself apart and releasing the internal tensions along obvious fault lines. The literal was quickly becoming impractical as an expressive vehicle for Manning.


Manning's new work in the exhibition Common/Opposites at first seems to be a fundamental shift away from the refuge of the literal but, on closer examination, I believe that although a shift has taken place it is really more about Manning using his facility with the material to explore broader themes with a different set of tools. An author may choose to write non-fiction, poetry, literary critique or prose; each requires a different set of tools that enables the writer to communicate more effectively. The narrative to the poetic: not evolution, not hierarchical, but rather a lateral exploration. Manning seems to have become a poet.

In this newest body of work the vessel has disappeared. In its place we have sculptures that are more about mass than volume, more sublime than functional and certainly seductive rather than subtle. It would seem that the inspiration for these pieces is not direct observation but rather experiences filtered through memory.


Do we not always remember the colours to be brighter, the hills to be higher and the sky bluer? When drawing on the intangible ephemera of memories, is it not easier to opt for metaphorical constructions?

Most of the new work is based upon predefined modules that are assembled, reassembled and cleverly altered. Much like his modernist predecessors Manning is choosing to work within restrictive design parameters. The palette, although bright, is limited, as is the use of repetitive components generated from moulds. The ovoid makes an appearance in many pieces, as does the granite impregnated black clay. All of these seemingly austere components combine to create a rich meditation on memory, landscape and, in one rare example, political commentary.

The finest example of the binary of the literal and the metaphor is the piece entitled Pink Stone. (See cover image.) Manning has coated a sublime modernist ovoid with a seductive pink glaze that seemingly emits light. This sits atop a monumental black mass that absorbs the aforementioned light. A skiff of improbable purple, a purple that is the gap between the literal black mass and the metaphoric pink, mediates this struggle.

Step back from the piece and we see the real magic materialise in front of our eyes. There on the ovoid's surface emerges a mountain landscape that, in reality, is a reflection of the base on the convex form but it also seems a reflection of earlier work, only now it is in muted pinks and constantly shifting as you circumnavigate the piece. Here is where metaphor lives. The mountain landscape now only exists as a transitive reflection on the surface of the work.


The endemic tensions of the earlier work are no more; Les Manning leaves us with nothing more than a reflection of the literal on the convex surface of the metaphorical.

A Review by Aaron Nelson

Aaron Nelson is currently the Artistic Director of the Medalta International Artists in Residence Program in Medicine Hat, Alberta.

All photos by Cecil and Diane Finch.
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Author:Nelson, Aaron
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Date:Sep 1, 2012
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