Kylie Manning wants her paintings to feel as quick, light, and open-ended as a sketch—but to have a permanence that “will last a thousand years.” She is as focused on the information she withholds as on what she provides. “I try to make a piece feel like a heavy-hitting masterpiece and also a whisper, really delicate,” she says.
Manning, 38, works in Ridgewood, Queens, a stone’s throw from Bushwick in Brooklyn, in a bright studio in a former textile factory that was converted into artist spaces. She typically arrives about noon and stays until 9 or 10 at night—even later if things are going well.
As the first step in her process, she applies rabbit-skin glue with a cake knife to linen canvas. “It’s what Caravaggio used,” she says. “It makes it as tight as a drum.” Having sized the surface, she then covers it with an oil ground; the preparation is methodical and time-consuming. When it is completed, she is ready to roll—literally. Quickly and intuitively, she takes paint rollers to the canvas. The broad strokes of color provide ideas. “Often the rollers give an implication, like when you look at a piece of wood and you see eyes and a face,” she says. Sometimes she begins with a pre-existing image, borrowed loosely from a family photograph from her childhood, and jumps off.
The fourth of five kids, Manning was raised in Juneau, Alaska and various regions of Mexico. Her parents, both art teachers, “were hippies,” she says, “and they thought different perspectives were quite crucial for children.” They would transplant the family from Alaska to Mexico as often as they could, usually during summers or on yearlong sabbaticals. Manning was mostly home-schooled.
“I knew at a young age all I loved to do was paint,” she says. She also realized that “if you don’t have contacts, it takes years” to earn a livelihood as an artist. To make ends meet, “either you paint what you don’t want to paint, or you do the work that makes you the most money in the least amount of time. For me, it was commercial fishing.” For five summers, she worked as the only woman on a five-person crew, catching salmon in Alaska. “I had a captain’s license for a 500-ton vessel, and I could tie the knots,” she says. “It was awesome, but by the end you couldn’t have paid me enough to get me back on a boat.”
She believes that the time she spent on the water beneath an open sky influenced her paintings, in which ambiguously defined figures emerge from gestural abstraction. “It is as translucent as water, as ephemeral as what you see on the surface and what you don’t see under the water,” she says of her artistic style. “You get this sense of flickering.” She is exquisitely attuned to the specific atmosphere of a time and place. Discussing one rose-hued painting that fixes my gaze, she says, “I wanted to capture that freezing cold temperature of Alaska, that cold pink. If I can capture the time of day, the longitude and the temperature, the viewer can understand it completely.”
As a student at the New York Academy of Art, she felt that her commitment to figurative painting marginalized her. At the suggestion of a mentor there, she moved to Leipzig in 2010, stayed two years, and felt for the first time a sense of artistic community. She worked down the hall from the famed German artist Neo Rauch. “Everyone would sit at the end of the day and have a bottle of wine and talk about color theory and perspective,” she says. “I felt kinship and also gratitude for the German mind-set.”
Her breakthrough came last May with a solo exhibition at Anonymous Gallery in New York. As the public was returning to galleries after the imposed isolation of the pandemic, her pieces resonated. “They were painted with layers of safflower oil on top of thin washes,” Manning says. “People were excited to see art in real life that needed to be seen in real life. You couldn’t see what it was in reproduction.”
Joseph Ian Henrikson, the founder and director of Anonymous, had been talking to Manning about mounting a show before the pandemic froze their plans. “She just dug in and did the strongest body of her work I had seen,” he says. Often portraying a somewhat more defined figure in the company of vague forms, the paintings were suffused with the mood of the time. “The name of the show, ‘Zweisamkeit,’ is German for ‘double isolation,’” Henrikson notes. “Even being together, you can feel alone. Loneliness can be shared.” The success of “Zweisamkeit” led to Manning being included in a group show at Pace last September. “It was a very good year,” Manning says.
When I visit, her studio is filled with large canvases in different stages of completion (Manning is preparing for a follow-up solo show this fall). An outsider can have trouble determining if the works are finished; even when they are, large sections of the surface may simply be the off-white of the oil ground. Manning sands down paint and then puts on fresh layers. “I don’t want every piece to have the same quality of information,” she explains. “I have to stare at some paintings for months and months, sometimes years.”
She is married to Peter Davis, a filmmaker, but for most of her twenties, before falling in love with a man, she dated only women. “The works in spirit are so much about a queer eye and a queer handling and an openness of gender,” she says. “The time for figures that are neither masculine nor feminine, or are both, seems to be now.” She deliberately omits or blurs the gender of her figures, she says, “so the work can be more open for everyone.”
And she wants her process to be apparent. “I’m never hiding how the paintings are made,” she says. “I want to share that and do it in a way in which the stakes seem really high. You have to feel that I was ready to wipe out and give up on the piece. You have to feel that either it comes together or it’s completely ruined.”