Widening the Horizon
The Work of David Mankin
An elemental realism comes across in David Mankin’s work. Although the visual perspective constantly shifts within his canvas from the sea shore to a horizon line, the pattern of lichen on a rock to an aerial view of the coastline, the paintings capture an experiential truth. His abstract techniques allow this to come through, precisely because the dramatic and rebellious Cornish landscape refuses to be confined in representational work. This feeling and essence of the landscape is in every brushmark hitting the canvas, this combined with the undeniable beauty of the work is perhaps why so many people have related to and fallen in love with his paintings. True to the subject he deals with, Mankin doesn’t deal in linearities or boundaries; he pushes both himself and the canvas to extremes to convey the drama of the landscape.
Although there is a sense within Mankin’s canvases that an upsurge of inspiration has occurred, the beauty and detail within the work belies a considerable process of refinement. The artist starts his process in nature, on his daily walks and cycle rides, literally and metaphorically beachcombing the landscape for inspiration. His eye might fall on the texture of some granite, the ochre-colour of some lichen, or the way the sea is blown up in peaks on a choppy day. This image collection is partly about photographs, and partly about ‘feeling the landscape all the way through’ committing it to memory, subconsciously recording ‘different fragments of experience’ to be thrown at the canvass in a trance-like-focus later on in his studio. The artist showed me some examples of found objects he has acquired on his naturalist wanderings: a blue lobster pot rope, a piece of wood lashed and warped by the tide, and a crimson circle of plastic, perhaps from a fishing crate. As well as being visual stimulants, these objects sometimes make their way into the canvas literally, the artist using them as stencils to trace the paint around. In the studio, Mankin begins with small works on paper using pastel, charcoal, pencil, pen and crayon, in a number of different sketchbooks. True to form, he does not address even his planning-process in a linear fashion, jumping between different sketchbooks and ideas as they come to him naturally, mirroring the way his canvases rove over different viewpoints. He then moves onto larger sheets of paper, using acrylic to ‘find a way in’, starting to push the materials even at this early stage, explaining ‘you can be quite explosive with the application of paint and different textures’. He then disrupts what he has fixed down, or changes the direction of the focus by cropping into the larger sheets, to see if any interesting compositions or colour combinations become apparent. This small section is then blown up to a potentially huge scale. He doesn’t feel constrained with huge canvases, although perhaps slightly daunted, explaining that tackling one feels like ‘diving off a cliff into a deep pool’. He enjoys sitting in uncomfortable states of mind, relishing the risk in not having a plan, stating ‘the risk in painting is important- if you don’t take risks you won’t get to the magic point’; knowing that his best work comes from a place of tension bordering on difficulty.
So Mankin physically attacks the canvas, hitting it ‘with a certain degree of attitude’, scratching into it, splattering large arcs of paint made with enormous sweeps of the arm. Sometimes the artist will draw his compositional outline onto the canvas in charcoal, but he will always eradicate it, making a point of constantly changing direction: the wind forcing the cliff-edge-tamarisk one way, then another. In this sense, his way of painting is deeply expressive, it consistently follows the feelings he has about the landscape; the change and flux of it, its unpredictability, the way the weather physically changes it, its inability to be contained: this is what excites Mankin. Thus in his unprescribed painting process we can see he almost inhabits the fluctuating personality of the Cornish landscape.
His compositions appear so calculatingly thought-out. The viewer can easily crop into any one of his paintings and find a section within it that could be a painting in its own right; this comes from the artist’s very sporadic yet intensive process of aggressive refinement, stripping things back, unearthing buried marks, changing direction, shifting the view point, destroying a section, building it back up again. He calls this process ‘reshuffling the deck’, valuing accidents, mistakes, tactility, transformation, and destabilisation. The obvious compositional form to go for with a landscape painting is the horizon line, but Mankin actively rejects and disrupts this, choosing abstraction as his method to express, focusing on infusing the painting with the right feeling and mood. He states that ‘the possibilities of paint are very important’, and stresses the importance of not limiting them because of personal fear.
Mankin’s internal and external influences don’t change significantly, but the materials and their application is the part of his practise that he feels can and should constantly shift. He explains that he is always exploring new ways of applying the paint, new radical compositions, different colour combinations, and different scales. Elaborating that there should be a constant process of exploring and upsetting, otherwise a dialogue won’t be created between artwork and viewer and that when the artist stops playing and pushing the work can become static. Therefore he pushes himself to use different and stranger methods to ensure something exciting emerges. This process thus collides his automatic, intuitive, and expressive response against the formal qualities he is trying to achieve: a wave slapping against a rock-face, creating an explosion of sea-spray. Mankin explains, ‘you can’t have control if you are creating something completely of its own nature.’ He goes on to quote an excerpt from book on Robert Motherwell, to highlight this: Motherwell was struggling to accurately depict sea-spray in a painting, ending up getting the desired effect by using a yard-long brush and liquid oil paint ‘[hitting] the paper with the full force of my one hundred and eighty pounds, with the painting brush moving in a six foot arc… An adequate equivalent of the pounding summer sea spray appeared’. Similarly Mankin embodies the nature he reproduces, using charcoal attached to long poles, slathering on paint with a dough-divider. This is how he produces a feeling of the landscape, rather than a photographic reproduction, and why the viewer feels like they inhabit his paintings, rather than just standing in front of them.
This effect is what a true artist of the sublime achieves, although Mankin doesn’t necessarily relate his art to the word. For Mankin, relating to and creating abstract landscapes is about reconciling seeing with feeling, and associates his thoughts to an essay on Turner by Ruskin, who explains the sublime is about ‘reconciling the objective truth with the subjective experience’. He uses the comparison by Ruskin of Brett’s picturesque and topographical depiction of mountains in his Val d’Aosta, and Turner’s 1843 watercolours of the Alpine Pass of the St Gotthard. Ruskin says of Brett’s painting:
‘It has a strange fault… it seems to me wholly emotionless”, the author, Malcolm Andrews, extends: ‘almost in proportion to its fidelity to the objectively observable Alpine valley it lacks expressive emotional force’ whereas in regards to Turner’s ‘sublime’ and ‘romantic’ depictions of a similar subject matter, ‘the mental or emotional truth of this mountain view is one that needs to distort the topography in order to communicate the contextual drama of the larger experience of the whole environment.’
It is this connection to painting the ‘sublime’ that we can place on Mankin’s work. Abstraction is really the only proper way to depict the landscape, as ridding it of its essential drama is a ‘dehumanised response’ that manages and regulates the unruly. Mankin is especially interested in how the landscape upsets our mental state in a pleasurable way, and projects this complexity onto his canvases. He taps into the human feeling of excitement at being unnerved by the drama of landscape. As a human being you suddenly become completely insignificant: there is no rationality or humanity in the sea, the wind, or the rain, giving us a moment of complete liberation in our invisibility. Mankin elaborates, ‘there is a spirit to it- you can’t quite get away from the religion of the sublime.’
Mankin strives for place within his work. This is not specified or tied down, his work is too energetic for that. Similarly, there is no over-analysed narrative nor any political agenda, the artist just spills onto the canvass his momentary experiences of the landscape, giving the viewer an authentic elemental experience. Mankin is always inhabiting ‘a moment’ when he is creating his work, which explains the paintings’ grounded intensity, however these moments shift and change constantly. The multiple moments and perspectives within the paintings ensure links and associations are constantly developing as the painting finds its way. He explains that the painting builds and progresses on its own trajectory, that any attempt to tie down and prescribe would disrupt the sense of place. This, of course, is the beauty of abstract painting: it throws up so many different connections all at once, ‘your brain overheats with the possibilities of where you are going to take it next’, says Mankin.
However, within this abstraction there is an element of the personal in Mankin’s paintings. The artist sees each canvas as a chance to express himself in the moment, through the medium of paint, repeating the old maxim ‘every painter paints themselves.’ He explains that this is important for the effectiveness of the work too, as if there isn’t a tangible investment in the work, the viewer won’t feel like they want to climb into and inhabit the painting. One of the ways Mankin manages this deep investment in the work is through music, which he never paints without.
He is especially inspired by trance music, explaining that it has highs and lows, and is at times melodic as well as having a heavy thumping beat. He gets an emotive and euphoric quality from it that pushes him to places he wants to be pushed to, inspiring him to get physical with his canvases. Using wireless sound-cancelling headphones allows him to get deeply involved with both the track and the painting. He explains the state he gets into whilst listening to his choice of music as invigorating, inspiring, and slightly manic. The music is an aural representation of the sublime, bringing a powerful liberation, anonymity, and excitement to the listener in the face of such powerful pulses of sound.
The artist forces himself against his own ‘horizon line’, appreciating the struggle of a difficult painting: ‘I get emotional about it if it’s not got the right energy or not going where it wants to go’. The artists’ inherent ability to adapt allows him to use the struggle to create new avenues. This is why we rove around so many different landscape elements in his paintings, they are his painterly footprints, marking where he has used an obstacle to his advantage, by zooming into the work, stripping it back, flipping the canvas, or adding an innovative technique. Mankin feels that his best work are the ‘difficult paintings’, because they have more of himself in them. The artist himself is an elemental force, filling up every available space within his work like water, refusing to crawl back from any boundary but hitting it with his full force until it breaks apart, picking up the pieces and rearranging them on a canvas so we can step inside his world and feel the wind take our breath away.
For more information:
Mel Gooding, Excerpts from Robert Motherwell ‘Collage’, published for the Robert Motherwell exhibition Collage, (London: Bernard Jacobson Gallery, 2013)
Malcom Andrews, ‘The Emotional Truth of Mountains’, Caliban, French Journal of English Studies, < https://journals.openedition.org/caliban/1088 > [Accessed 02.03.2020]