At VTSU-Johnson, Michael Mahnke’s Solo Exhibit Addresses Memory, Mortality and Materiality | Art Review | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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At VTSU-Johnson, Michael Mahnke’s Solo Exhibit Addresses Memory, Mortality and Materiality

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Published February 14, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated February 14, 2024 at 11:11 a.m.


"Democracy" - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • "Democracy"

Michael Mahnke grew up in Nebraska surrounded by fields, then traded rural life for the taller pastures of New York City. A quarter century later, he relocated to Johnson with his wife, Kyle Nuse, and two young daughters. Now, a single road in the northern Vermont town marks something of a through line for the artist.

Since 2014, Mahnke and Nuse have owned the Studio Store, which sells art supplies and houses the petite minėmå. Across the street, Mahnke maintains a workspace at the Vermont Studio Center. Past that, at the apex of a long hill, is Vermont State University-Johnson, where he's a part-time painting instructor. And in the school's Julian Scott Memorial Gallery, Mahnke's solo exhibition is currently on view.

"Memory in Material" is a revelation. Enormous paintings and thoughtfully crafted mixed-media installations reference Mahnke's earlier locales and states of mind, yet his personal excavations strike universal veins. Both the materials and the names of his works speak to an encompassing theme for the show: humility and nobility, and what lies between.

Mahnke's 60-by-288-inch painting "Democracy" — comprising six canvases adjoined horizontally — is a feat of sheer size. Extending across one wall of the single-room gallery, the abstract work is executed mainly in ultramarine blue and white. A looping line connects unruly, randomly shaped forms scattered across the entire expanse. The painting could be a visual metaphor for the disunity in these United States, or for the fragile bonds holding the "American experiment" together.

Mahnke has added a fulcrum-like pile of blue-painted plaster pebbles on the floor at the center point of the painting and a series of single rocks, also blue, along the top of the canvases. He leaves interpretation of these elements to the viewer.

"Democracy" is one of the works that includes a list of descriptors in the wall text. In this case, Mahnke has ascribed "charged," "space in between shapes," "equitable and safe," and 16 other phrases to the concept. All words aside, "Democracy" is simply a beautiful work of art.

"Noble" - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • "Noble"

So is its tall companion, "Noble," on an adjacent wall. Measuring 129 by 51 inches, it's a vertical diptych with stone and wood inclusions at the lower right and upper left edges. These extensions give the painting a sense of reaching both above and below.

The vocabulary of forms is similar to those in "Democracy," but here Mahnke has rendered them in vivid colors — purple, yellow, red, turquoise — and allowed more breathing room between them. Under "Noble is," he writes, "virtue," "sunrise," "growing like a tree," "a thousand mistakes" and more.

Text itself is the art on a pair of gray-painted columns between gallery windows. The lowercase sans serif font is in colors that are easy to miss, but the phrases, borrowed from a Syrian proverb, are essential to the exhibition's import: "be humble for you are made of earth" and "be noble for you are made of stars."

"Humble" - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • "Humble"

Mahnke reiterates the idea of humility in an installation titled "Humble." It's a shallow, 15-by-68-inch trough made of pine, hung like a floating shelf, and filled with yellow and white corn. That is, the word "humble" is spelled out in white corn in the middle of zillions of yellow kernels. The subtle difference in hues is apropos. Text for this piece includes the words "anonymous," "all that exists," "selfless" and "unending roads."

A paean to the Pawnee Earth goddess rests on a smaller plexi shelf nearby: "Speaking to Atira" consists of a single ear of corn with multicolored kernels — some individually painted blue — placed on a sparkly turquoise mat. Desiccated leaves angling outward from the cob call to mind the wild gestures of a symphony conductor. Mahnke probably did not intend to anthropomorphize, but there it is. This Native American goddess might be lying inert on a piece of plastic, but she still has her wiles.

"Speaking to Atira" - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • "Speaking to Atira"

An installation in the middle of the gallery floor, titled "Through Which Smoke Traveled," is also a paean — to a late friend of Mahnke's from Brooklyn named Jack Lindsay Smith. On a low, white-painted wood platform, 72 by 17 inches, Mahnke arranged neat rows of milled bricks from a deconstructed chimney. These are painted an oily black. A wispy trail of gray sand — which might be read as ashes — extends from the bricks to the end of the platform and over its edge, making a tiny mound on the floor. Mahnke added two chunks of rock to the pile in what seems to represent a final, affectionate nod to both the man and the studio the friends once shared.

"This structure pays tribute to the memory of Jack," Mahnke writes, "and to the enduring, imperfect structures that hold us together until the end."

"Memory in Material" is, in essence, about what holds us.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Earth and Stars | At VTSU-Johnson, Michael Mahnke's solo exhibit addresses memory, mortality and materiality"

Michael Mahnke, "Memory in Material," on view through February 23 at Julian Scott Memorial Gallery, Vermont State University-Johnson. A closing reception is Friday, February 23, 4-6 p.m.

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