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Animated, impulsive and a little bit absent-minded, the French-born, Swiss artist Gene Mann packs an intense mix of curiosity, technical experimentation, and joie de vivre into every square inch of her artwork.
A longtime resident of the small town of Carouge, which borders Geneva, in southwestern Switzerland, Mann has shown her mixed-media works, executed on canvas or paper, and her sculptures, which often make substantial use of papier mâché, in galleries and other venues in Europe, including the recently closed Galerie Krugier & Cie. in Geneva and the original Art Basel fair in Switzerland.
In recent months the artist has been living and working in Catalonia, in northeastern Spain. “An opportunity arose that allowed me to spend time here, where I have some real space in which to spread out,” Mann said in a recent telephone interview. “The space, the light, the change of atmosphere — I’ve thrown myself into it. I believe shaking things up can be good for an artist’s creativity.”
Now, Mann’s work is being presented for the first time in a solo exhibition in New York, at Andrew Edlin Gallery in Chelsea. A collection of richly textured works, which blend gestural painting, figurative drawing and collage on everything from small pieces of cardboard to boards measuring nearly 4 x 6 feet, the exhibition is an audacious debut in a city where the shadows of Abstract Expressionism still loom large whenever an artist splatters, drips, scrapes, pours, or otherwise flings paint at or on a surface to make an image.
While Mann’s formal language may be largely abstract, her approach to making art is not self-consciously filtered through any canonical styles or theories. If anything, it has been informed over the years by her exposure to and assimilation of European art’s own late-20th-century experiments, in which such artists as Jean Dubuffet, Lucio Fontana, Bram van Velde and Pierre Soulages, among many others, scratched, slashed, burned, punctured and otherwise assaulted or caressed their materials to produce paintings and different kinds of mixed-media works.
Raw creative energy is also a hallmark — if not the subject — of much of Mann’s art. So is a sense of spontaneity and an awareness of that drive. Although she is not an outsider artist per se, Mann has developed her art-making techniques primarily on her own and through them has found ways to give expression to the forces that motivate her.
Born in Grenoble, as a child Mann enjoyed drawing and watching her mother sew, but her hometown at the foot of the French Alps was too small to contain her restless spirit. As a teenager, she moved to Paris and fell in with a community of musicians. “The crazy mood of Godard’s film Breathless — I lived it!” Mann has recalled. In 1980, she moved to Geneva, where she started to make paintings after first covering the walls and ceilings of her home with hand-painted designs, and after visiting an exhibition of Goya drawings which, she remembered, “left me in tears.”
While working as an interior decorator and auditing classes at local art schools, Mann developed her own mode of making semi-abstract images. Those pictures, which she has presented in such series as Tendres humains (“Tender Humans”), Exquises turbulences (“Exquisite Turbulences”) and her ongoing production of Petits carrés (“Little Squares,” or small, abstractly painted pieces of cardboard) are rich in both suggested visual textures and real, physical textures.
Several of Mann’s family members died when she was young. She said, “I learned at an early age about the fragility of life.” Also, when she was in her early twenties, her mother revealed to her that the man Gene had believed to be her father was not her father; instead, that man’s brother was her father. “I had long sensed that something in my family’s story did not make sense,” Mann told me a few years ago during a visit to her studio in Carouge, a quiet town of old, low-rise buildings across the Avre River from Geneva. “When my mother told me the truth, it was a tearful, liberating moment and, I believe, the start of my serious work as an artist.” For Mann, making art started to feel more therapeutic and urgent. For viewers, she believes, the strongest art can or perhaps should be therapeutic or cathartic.
Mann’s current New York exhibition includes some good examples of her energetic Petits carrés, which she often presents framed and laid out in grids; here, for example, “Mythologie Quotidienne” (“Daily Mythology,” 2014) consists of 121 of these four-inch-square, tile-like effusions of color, squiggles, rubbings, splotches, random patterns and automatic writing. Each one is an Ab-Ex painting in miniature. Some include collaged elements, too. “For me, the little squares are an essential part of my work,” the artist said. “Ideas and techniques that emerge in them often reappear later, further developed, in larger works.”
Often an air of something primordial and elemental wafts through Mann’s art. In wall-mounted, mixed-media works like “Untitled” (2008), she overlaps and sandwiches together numerous layers of color-washed paper to create impasto-like surfaces where phantom figures lumber or stride, their apparent solidity belying the delicateness of the materials from which they are fashioned. In more monochromatic pieces such as “Untitled III” (2014), a palette of black, brown-black and off-white suggests the effects of fire or time on vulnerable materials. Here the artist makes use of a less densely layered technique, as spectral forms silhouetted against dark grounds bring to mind X-rays, shadow puppets and gangly human bodies going bump in the night.
Mann is also showing mixed-media works mounted on board, including “Figures de mémoire” (“Memory Figures,” 2013); several grid-format, multi-component tableaux; and larger-format works in whose expansive compositions her lines and abstract forms loosen up and spread out in what appear to be topographic maps from other worlds. The artist explained, “All of these works explore the idea of territory — that of real, physical space as well as that of my interior life and even of my past life.”
For Mann, the relatively simple materials she employs, including all those layers of collaged paper, make allusions to human skin and flesh, and the figures she depicts, shadowy or submerged in texture-rich surfaces, evoke humanity’s most primeval rumblings and urges. “Making these works has allowed me to get in touch with my own wild side,” the artist said, using the French word “sauvage” to describe that sensibility.
She also noted that, as she sees it, conceptually speaking, the pieces on view in the current exhibition taken together “comprise one big work; they’re the evidence of one big creative journey.” However, she added, “in practical terms, one has to break up a large work like that and present it in smaller parts that can be more readily comprehended.”
The late Jan Krugier (1928–2008), a survivor of the Nazis’ concentration camps who founded the legendary gallery that bore his name in Geneva in 1962, once remarked: “A drawing is the first cry of humanity. […] It goes back to something deep and primitive.” Mann’s art is rooted in drawing or, more basically, in a rudimentary, conscientious sense of mark-making. Many of her works, with their inky spots, patches of impasto, and curlicue or zigzag strokes, appear to share affinities with ancient writing systems or with the gestural bravura of classic Abstract Expressionism. They reflect the pure creative impulse, unaffected by critical theory or a self-conscious sense of art history, which is also found in the work of unschooled art brut artists. Mann admires outsider art but does not try to imitate its look in her own work.
One of Mann’s artistic heroes is the French poet René Char (1907–1988), who fraternized with the surrealists in the early 1930s and served in the French Resistance during World War II. Char observed: “[I]t is the spirit behind your actions and words that announces your inner state.” The kind of eyes-wide-open, responsible approach to life Char advocated was one that the post-WWII French existentialist thinkers, in their own terms, would describe as “authentic.” It colors Mann’s outlook, too. In her case, it is mixed with an unsinkable sense of survival and of just getting on with it, no matter what life might throw in one’s path.
That humanistic spirit comes across in her art without a hint of sentimentality. It might even go a long way toward explaining its allure. Often, it seems, her images of semi-abstract human figures and her freewheeling abstractions celebrate the basic act of making a lasting, personal mark, a gesture that emphatically says, “I am alive. I am here.”
Such a gesture, as both the starting point and subject of Mann’s art, is one that is eternal. Or as the artist put it as she described the content of her current show, “This work has no beginning and it really has no end”
Gene Mann continues at Andrew Edlin Gallery (134 Tenth Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 26.
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