Rising-Star Painter Kylie Manning on Her Unlikely New Collaboration With the Ballet Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon
The artist designed the scenography and costumes for Christopher Wheeldon's new piece for the ballet company.
Kylie Manning’s paintings are like staring off the edge of a precipice. In her Ridgewood, Queens, studio, her painting Pareidolia (2023) hangs against a paint-splattered wall. Blue and green pigment pulses across the canvas like currents and, as afternoon light pours in from the window, the painting seems to shimmer, flecks of light leaping like embers off the canvas.
Movement is everywhere at once in the work, creating a dizzying, vertiginous effect. Pareidolia, along with another painting, You Into Me, Me Into You, which hangs beside it in the studio, were the inspirations behind the scenography and costuming behind choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s hotly anticipated new ballet “From You Within Me” currently in performance at the New York City Ballet’s Spring Gala.
Wheeldon had been captivated by Manning’s paintings when he’d visited “Both Sides Now,” her debut exhibition with the Pace Gallery, at the Los Angeles space, in the fall of last year. Mesmerized by the dance-like passages that characterize Manning’s paintings, Wheeldon, in an unusual move, brought her on as a close collaborator throughout the process of developing the ballet, with Manning guiding scenography and costumes (Manning’s titles, one can note, are often song titles or lyrics).
“Come see how the painting changes when you stand closer,” she told me. Manning’s eyes move across the work and then watch as my eyes move across the work. She is nine months pregnant and her blonde hair is braided around her head on an unseasonably sweltering April day. As I move closer to the painting, I have the strange sensation of falling backward, as though waking from a dream, and need to reorient myself.
“We feel this lifting up,” she observed, “We don’t quite get the scale of what we see that’s not by accident. I want to feel like there is a wave crashing over us.”
Right now, Pace Geneva is presenting “You Into Me, Me Into You” (through May 13), Manning’s first exhibition in Switzerland. The show brings together paintings conceived in parallel to her collaboration with the ballet.
These works thrive in an in-between space, landscapes hinted at but never revealed, figures, painted with lithe expressionism, emerge then recede in a pigmented haze (Manning’s two paintings for the ballet are atypical in that they’re absent of figures, the dancers instead occupying this bodily presence). Though the works churn with energy, her process is slow. She builds up her canvases, layering rabbit skin glues and oils, in a process akin to Caravaggio and Vermeer in its traditional materiality. Then she begins to pull elements away.
“It’s like a hide,” she said, bringing her hand to a painting she’s recently begun. Manning leaves evidence of her process for viewers to witness. “I think of old surfers whose bodies are freckled and scarred. Their bodies are full of stories. I think of the canvases, building up that stored energy,” she said.
In her most recent works, brushstrokes of color sweep and skitter across large-scale canvases. Her hues are newly heightened, in moments, with intense emeralds and fuchsias calling to mind forests and oceans and icy sunsets. “These colors are of a colder, more northern climate than the works in L.A., which had a kind of warmth,” Manning noted.
Wilderness, Manning hints at, again and again, in oblique allusions to her own life. The artist grew up one of five children, her parents both art teachers, living between Juneau, Alaska, where she was born, and San Blas and Sayulita, Mexico, where she spent portions of her childhood.
“I was raised literally like a wild animal,” she told me. “All our pictures are of us running around on the beach as kids in Mexico or in the woods in Alaska.” On one level her paintings are bold warnings about the power of nature and our precarious relationship with the world we inhabit.
“Seeing powerful art in New York is the closest I can get to the experience of being in nature,” she told me. Manning has had some intense encounters with nature herself. Knowing she wanted to pursue an M.F.A., but lacking the funding, Manning earned a captain’s license and operated a 500-ton commercial fishing boat in the Pacific to help pay for her courses at the New York Academy of Art. She is also a devoted surfer.
Standing in front of her canvases one can feel a sense of the tides—in the pushing and pulling of her imagery and the bright, glittering sense of light. In a work like Here You Come Again, the riotous seascapes of J.M.W. Turner come to mind, along with other grand-scale paintings of the sea from Winslow Homer to Théodore Géricault’s Raft of Medusa.
Manning’s paintings are quietly confident, leaving room for nuance and multiple perspectives. When I tell her I feel she’s seemingly come out of nowhere, she laughs generously. The artist, who is 39, has been painting for nearly 20 years. But her rise to the spotlight has been precipitous.
She came to Pace Gallery through Christiana Ine-Kimba Boyle. The two met at a Joan Synder exhibition opening at Canada Gallery in 2020. Boyle, who was working there at the time, was struck by her thoughtful questions. The two kept in contact for months. Boyle was unaware she was a painter for some time.
“A lot of people don’t believe that. But Kylie is very, very modest. It wasn’t until she was working up toward a solo exhibition that she shared the work with me and invited me for a studio visit,” Boyle explained. “I was immediately captivated. The rest is history.”
Boyle believes Manning has a strength of vision that is singularly her own, and which speaks honestly to shifts in art we are only now starting to recognize and name. For one, Boyle notes the androgyny of her figures. Manning’s figures are neither male nor female, young nor old. Defined passages of figuration give way to amorphous clouds of form, as though seeing a figure through a fog. Boyle aligns these genderless figures with Manning’s formal qualities, an amalgamation of abstraction and figuration.
Manning herself fails to see these modes of painting as oppositional. “It’s a spectrum of information given,” she said.
Seeking real-world cohesion is folly, too. In her painting Still be on my feet (2023) a nose and mouth can be gleaned upon a figure’s raised hand. This visual language is one of gestures, of small distinct motions, the curve of a neck, the turn of a leg, which hint at masculinity and femininity—in a way that is decidedly dance-like.
In Archipelago, two figures are seated next to each other, as though resting on a bed, one figure’s stomach curves, perhaps a pregnant belly. Looking again, however, I wonder if I am reaching for meanings; her painting title, Pareidolia, after all, references the brain’s tendency to recognize patterns or figures in amorphous shapes. In other words, we might be seeing what we are expecting to see vs what is actually there.
Even so, Manning’s figures are simultaneously haunting and heavenly in their forms. I told her these figures remind me of angels, and Manning explained that on some level the paintings emerged from a period of mourning, her own processing of the global events of 2020 and 2021. “The loss that we couldn’t feel when we were just surviving has started to come through the cracks in these works,” Manning said.
Asked if she believes in an afterlife, Manning said she prefers not to place her own values onto the works, but to rather let them speak for themselves. They do speak, the images, of the whirlwind of the world beyond what is known, of the ongoingness of change.
When Manning works, she surrounds herself with canvases that she builds up simultaneously, thinking of these works as a kind of family unit. Family, in its ever-changing nature, is one of her recurring interests (the artist sometimes uses her own hands as a stand-in for her mother’s, as they are so similar in appearance). Pregnancy, she said, has heightened her awareness of our constant state of metamorphosis.
“But change can have an untethering quality,” she said, surrounded by her newest paintings, “And that can be incredible.”
“Kylie Manning: You Into Me, Me Into You” is on view at Pace, Quai des Bergues 15-17, Geneva, Switzerland, March 28 –May 13, 2024.
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