Moving with the Flow:
New RiverWork by Barbara Manger
By Michael Flanagan
Stepping into Barbara Manger's studio in Grafton is a delightful
venture into a working artist's unique space. The studio is located
high in an old woolen mill situated on the Milwaukee River as it flows
through the Grafton dam southward on a long path toward Milwaukee
Harbor, where it enters Lake Michigan. The tall old windows frame
views of the opposite wooded banks and the river's ever-changing lights
and motion. From a studio deck outside one can look down into the
water from an aerial vantage and listen to its musical language. Barbara's
access to the river, to the lakefront near her home in Milwaukee,
and to the Green Bay of her childhood, as well as kayaking forays
along other rivers in Wisconsin and Michigan, have made water a pivotal
image in her work, an underlying component of her vision.
By acquiring a command of a variety of processes, both traditional
and innovative, she is able to form her works in a manner that is
compatible with her vision. For instance, many of her recent carefully-crafted
printed works owe something to her fascination with Japanese wood
block prints. Her studies included a residency in Japan with master
artist Toshi Yoshida. Her sensitivity to the design of Japanese wood
blocks, use of a large vertical format and especially an interest
in the kanji and chop marks, is evident. She is adept at integrating
some of the formal structure of that tradition into her own works.
She has, for instance, acquired pieces of antique Chinese woodblocks,
and vintage rubber stamps that she employs in her works. The blocks
contain text, but she is intrigued less by the words than with the
forms themselves. Then she had the blocks examined by a scholar familiar
with the form and discovered that the texts are about Taoism; she
feels that the cultural link was a fortunate happenstance which has
provided another bridge in her work. The preparation of the old blocks
prior to printing with them also provided her with the tactile sensitivity
she found to be engaging. She had to wash off the old sumi ink, and
found that that activity reinforced the sense of connectivity to her
ongoing sense of the fluid form of history. The blocks, like the river,
had traveled here from somewhere else...
Manger's most recent images are large format, carefully crafted
works on hanga paper. She uses stencils fabricated from cut and torn
paper combined with imagery printed from the antique wood blocks.
The prints convey the sense of fluidity derived from her studies of
water, most particularly her empathy for the notion of a river flowing
downstream. The works imply a sense of movement, a narrative story,
and a history of life and death. This is by no means a sad tale, but
an impression that embraces natural changes, large and small. As a
river flows and carries sediment along with it, so does life carry
the debris it accumulates along the way.
Speaking to the use of color in these works, careful viewing reveals
layered strands of colors, fragile as individual threads, but gaining
strength when woven together. Color choices reveal a palette of earth
tones, with snippets of more intense, warmer colorsenriching the strata,
much as she finds in her meditations "on the seasonal landscapes"
outside her windows.
She sometimes prints in watercolor in the Japanese manner. The watercolor
is used directly from the tube with a thickening medium of rice paste
and is applied with a short- bristle brush evenly rubbed over the
block. She applies pressure to the back of the paper with a baren,
a Japanese printing implement, to transfer the paint to the papers
In a related direction inspired by her move to the Grafton studio,
she began doing studies of the river from her studio deck, looking
down into the water from an aerial viewpoint, using coffee and ink
on paper. These studies progressed to more substantial works and the
process became more complex. Tearing strips of paper, laying them
down and then using hand-rollers to ink in the gaps between the tom
pieces, Manger created the works in subtle layers. The use of stamps
found their way into these works as a means to change the sense of
scale and allude to life forms flowing deep in the river.
In answer to questions about her earlier formative processes, Manger
discussed one in particular, a series of landscape works produced
after a marathon cross-country bicycling trip. She had been working
abstractly, and found inspiration in the landscapes she remembered
from the trip. The works produced immediately thereafter incorporated
bicycle tire tracks printed across them. A pivotal point came when
she moved her subject matter from a topographic perspective to one
that was more vertical. Her cross-section of a river in this series
inspired her to begin looking at water more closely.
Barbara Manger's sense of the balance in nature, and of its eternal
flow in the "rivers and mountains without end", an awareness
given to us in the great art of the Orient, is harmoniously fused
in her work with the beauty of homely forms utilized in our own daily
life: be it stamps, inkblots, the flowing fibers of textiles, the
designs of American quilts, bramble bushes on the shores of Green
Bay, or bicycle tire treads... The integrity of time-fullness, "of
"right doing," is always luminous in her forms and media,
and new depths are revealed with each viewing.
Michael Flanagan is the Director of the Crossman
Gallery at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and has written
essays for exhibition catalogues and magazine articles in addition
to his curatorial work.