MELISSA MANFULL draws together the domains of nature, culture and the spirit in her densely patterned abstractions in ink, gouache and graphite. Her compellingly ambiguous spaces combine otherworldly architecture, geologic formations, the geometry of sacred spaces like cathedrals and mosques and the manipulative order of game design and graphic design. Melissa received her MFA in 2002 from Concordia University in Montreal. She has mounted three solo exhibitions at Taylor de Cordoba in Culver City, California: Tesseracts (2009), Pattern Constraints (2010) and Schemata (2013). Melissa’s work can currently be seen in two group shows: Thin Space at Fuller Seminary (Pasadena, California) through May 5, 2014 and Temporal Residue at Keystone Gallery (Los Angeles) from April 19-30, 2014. Melissa lives and works in Los Angeles.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Sometimes your drawings reference architecture, sometimes landscapes. Other times, they look like the insides of temples and sometimes the insides of pinball machines. How are all these seemingly disparate types of space connected?
Melissa Manfull: I am interested in controlled space, specifically how architecture or human intervention dominates the chaos of natural environments and phenomena. Architecture mitigates our experiences of space and the horizon. It is an intermediary structure that connects sky and land. I use drawing to experiment with space and structure without the constraints of gravity and perceived reality.
Each individual body of work focuses on a specific theme and is informed by an aesthetic, theoretical or topical interest. These have ranged from an interest in the aesthetics of science fiction or mystic architecture from the Southwest to the aesthetics of game design. Over the years, the drawings have shifted from observing architecture from an exterior viewpoint towards an interest in flipping between interior and exterior positions. Schemata’s focus was on the enclosed space of a game, which is a relationship between the interior mind of the player and the interior space of the game. Formally, I play with the depth or ambiguity of the space depicted in the drawing.
OPP: Is the meditative act of drawing only the process that drives your work or is it also the content?
MM: Both are very important to me as an artist, and the process is directly related to the content of my work. I develop my drawings in a very controlled, consistent order. From beginning to end, the process is almost mechanical; drawing is the one place where I can control, predict and order the whole experience. First, I research my chosen topic and collect visuals related to the content. Then I plan out the drawing, execute it in pen and ink in the color. The drawing and inking stages are very meditative.
I listen to audio books related to the theme of the drawing. I like to imagine the books are somehow woven into the drawing or affect the choices I make in the process. While working on the drawings from my 2009 show Tessaracts—both the title of a science fiction novel and a geometric form—I listened to books that dealt with time shifts and time travel. I have an underlying interest in dimensional portals, 11 dimensions of string theory and the aesthetics of science fiction. While working on Plato's Cave, Arch, Stylobate and Portico, I listened to Margret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, among others.
OPP: I've witnessed the attitude many times—and I 100% disagree—that pattern, ornament and decoration are insignificant and superficial. Even beauty is sometimes dismissed as not meaningful enough. Have you ever had the experience of your work being dismissed with the descriptor "decorative?"
MM: My work has actually been described as difficult to look at in person. The decorative elements of the work are so dense and obsessively drawn that there’s more a sense of horror than pleasure. This is also changing in my current work. Recently I’ve been using a heightened color palette with fluorescents to create a more challenging visual experience. The drawings are still dense and decorative, but now they have an electric glow which makes it difficult for the viewers’ eyes to focus. The decorative is also a form of order. I am interested in logical, mathematical patterns, such as tessellations, as well as optical and geometric patterns that mesmerize or hypnotize. So, the decorative is a large part of the content.
I do agree that decoration and pattern are sometimes an easy way of not having content and that using it so predominantly puts my work in a position of being viewed as commercial or illustrative. I am okay with this because I feel confident that my work transcends this category and uses pattern in a meaningful way, creating a synergy between the disparate worlds of fine art, the decorative and the graphic.
OPP: The press release for your 2010 solo show Pattern Constraints states: "Due to the obsessive nature of her process, Manfull has often viewed the meditative act of drawing as a way to approach her fear of vast, open ended space (the unknown). By creating her minute sculptural drawings, she gives this abyss a meaning and in essence, gains control." How does this “control” show up in a new way in your most recent exhibition Schemata (2013) at Taylor De Cordoba Gallery (Culver City, California)?
For many years, my drawing style involved imposing a structure on an
empty space or on less controlled forms (for example, poured ink forms,
which were symbolic of chaos). But now, I am more interested in
exploring forms of visual control in society and the relationship
between power, manipulation and pleasure. It is still related to the
chaos/control relationship, but it is more specifically about corporate,
graphic design as a visual language that is used to manipulate.
In Schemata, I was interested in how games hypnotize and entrance the viewer with color and form. The theory behind game design relates to the intentions of architects of spiritual spaces—Gaudi is an example. Both have a visual logic with designated points that manipulate the player into making certain decisions. Squares, circles and triangles move game players’ eyes around the space, leading them on designated paths to preconceived outcomes. There are points of choice, possible actions and payoffs, as well as elements of addiction like relapse. I used these ideas to create compositions or abstracted versions of the original games. Symmetry, patterning and the golden ratio were all a part of designing these works and relate back to geometry found in spiritual spaces.
OPP: Could you say more about the overlap of the aesthetics of game design and of sacred spaces?
MM: Geometry has always been a recurring theme in my work. My initial interest in architecture became abstracted into patterning and design, which are forms of order, logic and control. I began to research the relationships between geometry and sacred spaces like cathedrals and mosques, which were designed to inspire awe and explore the human relationship to the infinite. As an atheist, I want to understand how and why geometry and logical forms inspire such a reaction. The geometry found in the rose windows and spires of cathedrals, in the tile design of mosques and in mandalas is referred to as sacred geometry. Basic geometric forms are imbued with meaning specific to each religion or spiritual belief system. There are certain shapes that lend themselves to this—the circle (infinite perfection), the square (balanced symmetry) and the triangle (male/female duality in Hinduism). I use these forms with an acknowledgment that they have very significant historical references.
To see more of Melissa's work, please visit melissamanfull.com.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in her cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Recent solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago.