Ordinary Rendition: WTRBRD, 2018. Ash, danish cord, fabric. 6' long x 30" wide x 24" tall
ADAM JOHN MANLEY makes tall, teetering structures that threaten to fall, landmarks that travel from one location to another, and beautiful torture devices that would look good in any living room. Whether located in domestic space or the landscape, his sculptures make the viewer conscious of their expectations of the site they occupy. Adam earned his BA in International Relations at State University of New York at New Paltz and his MFA in Furniture and Woodworking at San Diego State University. His solo exhibitions include Itinerant Landmarks (2014) at UW Wisconsin, Staying Put (2014) at Space Gallery in Portland, ME and Ordinary Rendition (2018) at Indianapolis Art Center. In 2020, he won First Place at the annual Materials: Hard and Soft exhibition at Patterson-Appleton Arts Center in Denton, TX. In 2021, Adam will be a Windgate ITE Fellow at The Center for Art In Wood in Philadelphia, PA. He lives and works in San Diego, CA.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Do you identify more strongly as a sculptor or a furniture maker? Does the distinction matter to you?
Adam John Manley: I personally struggle with these identities, but lean more towards sculpture and object making in my practice. As an educator, I teach furniture design, fabrication, including both traditional techniques and contemporary technologies to undergraduate students. To graduate students, I teach more conceptual practices through the lens of furniture and craft. My work tends toward large scale sculptural and mixed media practices based in wood and craft techniques.
Itinerant Landmark: Waterfront, 2016.
OPP: It seems that you often subvert utility in some way, usually by highlighting the transience and instability of functional structures that we expect to stay in the same place. Can you talk about the relationship between utility and instability in your work?
AM: Utility and functionality are points of departure. To me, furniture and related familiar functional objects come with built-in associations that I mine and subvert in order to de-contextualize and re-contextualize. Those built-in meanings that come with, say, a chair, a sawhorse or a dining set can become confounding and allow for a re-evaluation of one’s sense of place and associations, by decontextualization. In other words, when an object closely associated with one location—and a set of memories and histories—is uprooted, melded with another object and placed in a new setting, suddenly we can imagine both that object and that place in a new light. We can place ourselves within it. We can begin to rewire our associations. I appreciate a certain precariousness coming through in these objects. We are transient, we are fleeting, we are simply passing through. I want my work to feel like it has been there forever, but also like it is out of place: to make the viewer squint and wonder how this thing fits into its surroundings, and what it means that it is there.
Staying Put, 2014.
OPP: Adrift (2009), Rocking Chamber (Turns Everything Upside Down) (2010) and Staying Put (2014) are just a few works that people could sit in, but none of your documentation shows people using these “functional” objects. Do you want viewers to interact with them?
AM: My work operates on a number of levels, sometimes from far away in a landscape, up close in person, and at times in photographic form. I believe that the lack of humans in all of those variants allows every person to place themselves within that environment in their mind’s eye. I want the work to imply use and interaction and force each person to make their own fundamental decision as to how one would engage. Another part of this strategy, is that the work is often intended to highlight a certain melancholy mood and hint at an engagement between the person and a vast, unyielding, and at times uninhabited surrounding. The emptiness of the objects hints at a sense of the post-apocalyptic. The amalgamation of multiple familiar objects, the dislocation of those objects and the emptiness of the scenes creates an absurdist condition that makes for a moment of contemplation.
Ordinary Rendition: PLLRY, 2018. Ash, plywood, paint. 45" tall x 36" wide.
OPP: Ordinary Rendition (2018) began, as you say, “from a thought: torture devices are furniture too.” This is a really compelling and challenging idea. First, how do you define furniture?
AM: Ordinary Rendition is a still-evolving body of work that was a departure for me. Furniture includes a whole realm of structural objects, designed to interact with, support and supplement our bodies and some of the other objects that we live with and around. How is a torture device different from this? Some furniture has incredibly specific uses: a chair is made to provide a surface upon which we sit. on the other hand, a table is pretty vague. It is a flat surface; things—basically anything—go on it. Sometimes we sit at it as well, depending upon the type of table, location in a house, etc. Also, furniture has histories, both universal and personal, and not all of those histories are good, or even neutral.
The idea to translate these objects into furniture forms was also based on the fact that we are living in a moment oversaturated with violence. Graphic violence and the destruction of the other are becoming (have become) incredibly visible, part of the landscape of our world. We can watch in nearly real time as horrific acts are committed by police, children, governments, criminals, terrorists, etc. To place these items into the home was an attempt to take that to the next (maybe logical) step. That we in fact live with this in our home. Throughout history, we have been willing to destroy the other to get what we want. This is an attempt to force an association with everyday comfort and implicate us ALL in histories and current climates of violence. This is one fundamental part of this work. It is self implication. It is a comment on complicity and how we become comfortable with things that we should not.
1.5 Million Homes (Power Comes in Waves), 2011. Diving board, wood, mechanical parts. 4' x 12' x 3'
OPP: Tell us about your choice to create torture devices that are beautiful, sleek, even sexy.
AM: Finally, to present it as “beautiful, sleek, even sexy” is intended to further this push/pull between attraction, desire, and even lust, and repulsion. The work is presented as hip, in the way that so many design objects instill a desire for a certain lifestyle. Our search for status through objects, will often allow us to overlook where they come from, either literally (the iPhone) or historically.
Transient Windmill (Nevada desert), 2008. Poplar, redwood, hardware.
OPP: It’s been more four months since the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic. How are you coping? How has your studio practice been affected?
AM: I have been lucky enough to maintain access to my personal studio, where I am mostly teaching, meeting with administrators about the coming semester, and conducting business as the board president of the Furniture Society. It has been really difficult to find the mental space to be incredibly creative, but those things will come. Since you sent this questionnaire, we have also come to a moment in which racist policies in this country are coming to the forefront and so, my mind is even further removed from my own work, which seems trivial when considering a world in which Black people have to worry about being murdered for existing. Add to that the stress and fear that the pandemic brings, and a general sense that I, as a white, straight, 30-something, male artist, have it incredibly good right now and always, makes for hard time to work. And rightfully so. It’s a time for searching our souls and figuring out how we change this world, all while battling an invisible virus…. anyway. That stuff is all making it a hard time to make with any kind of conviction or urgency.
To see more of Adam's work, please visit www.adamjohnmanley.com.