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J. Steven Manolis - Knock Out

The 38 foot hallway down which you move when entering Palm Beach Light, the show of work by J, Steven Manolis at the Fritz Gallery, Palm Beach, is hung with a dozen canvases, abstract paintings which capture the specific qualities of the light at moments of the day from Sunrise through Noon to Sunset Past Thirty. Just how specific are the light qualities? Well, the hallway ends with two sunsets, based respectively on the observation that orange and yellow dominate 80% of the sunsets hereabouts and that 15% of the sunsets are mostly lavender and pink. This is a tasty aperitif. You now enter the gallery’s main high-ceilinged space, which has been subdivided into three by moving walls and where you are at once confronted by a biggie, a 75” by 123” canvas painted in 2016: Flamingo - Key West.

I know this painting. The melt of the art world model interests me greatly, as do the changes in the traditional artist career. The trajectory of Manolis’ career is putting him in the forefront of such changes so I have been making sporadic studio visits over the last few years and was expecting no surprises. Wrong. Palm Beach Light is at once coherent and uncontainable, clearly the product of a single hand and eye, but as multi-directional as a spinning compass.

Just about any hang makes the point. Consider this. Two canvases entitled Redworld hang on a wall to the left, both painted in 2019, the smaller is 40” by 30” and the larger 84” by 72”. The smaller, a pure abstraction, as were all of Manolis’ artworks for many years, is fluidly made in the manner he calls Less Is More. The larger canvas is way more complex, incorporating three of the concentric circles which have been part of his pictorial language since early 2016, which was when they and other symbols, inexplicably to him, crept into his mind and entered the process. Much of the remaining picture surface is covered with a tracery of whiplash strokes with a fine energizing effect.

I navigated my way around Palm Beach Light looking for other canvases where Manolis has used the whiplash – it is executed with latex Enamel – and I did find several but there are as many others on which he has used wholly different methods of paint handling, including what he calls salt-and-pepper, blobs and visibly different varieties of throw and pour. The contrast with the great Ab Ex generation is striking. Yes, de Kooning was a polymorph but Rothko, Barnett Newman, Pollock, Franz Kline, were Modernists, set on a march onwards, onwards, working in their signature manner, the abandonment of which tended to signal either a crisis, as with Pollock, or, as with Guston, a rejection.

The variety in Manolis’ paint handling animates the show, and if it startles, but works, it’s because of a felt intensity, a sureness. It is that which unites such unalike works as the deceptively simple “Less-Is-More” piece, Winter Solstice, and the stand-out Splash (Pink Sands). As also a single sculpture in the show, Metamorphosis, a piece evolved from a Manolis painting by the sculptor, Miles Slater. There is an inventiveness, an inquisitive pictorial intelligence at work here, and this takes me straight back to Flamingo.

Manolis made this painting in early 2016, as part of his first major series Key West: Changing Colors, and its genesis was an Audubon print. “In 1832 the Florida flamingo was coral pink in color,” he says. “Today all Florida flamingos are salmon orange. And the reason for that is that the diet of the flamingo is shrimp. But pollution has changed the composition of the shrimp and as the shrimp has changed the flamingo has changed too. So I thought it would be nice to paint a work in which I transitioned colors from the top to the bottom to represent the passage of time. The by-product is that these coral pinks and muted oranges make for one of the most beautiful color combinations I have ever seen.” So why did I headline this review Knock Out? Well, no harm in being self-referential now and again, I hope. I had a boxing match on my 80th birthday. I was not in fact knocked out then, as I doubtless deserved, but I was knocked out by Palm Beach Light.


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