Born Detroit, 1964 / BA, University of California at Los Angeles / MFA, University of Michigan / Lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan
To date, Melanie Manos has scrunched into the upper shelves of walk-in closets; inserted her body between exposed wall studs; inhabited the interiors of defunct, doorless refrigerators; squeezed into rolling metal utility cabinets; ducked into niches and crevasses of attics; walked the rafters; clambered up, over, and down interior walls; climbed the exteriors of multistoried buildings; and, most recently, shinnied into the upper reaches of gigundo, sequoia-sized tree trunks. A number of Manos’s intrepid feats have been achieved digitally or on video and, surprisingly perhaps, beget as potent a reflexive audience reaction—fear, unease, release—as her literal, physical performances. She is indeed the consummate interdisciplinary artist who works in performance, digital media, and installation, exhibiting not only nationally but internationally.
Her most recent climbs, documented at Re:View Contemporary Gallery in Detroit in July–August 2014, represent an apex of a sort—perhaps her Mount Everest—and are indicative of her practice of scaling higher and taller edifices. Titled A Heightened State (2014), her installation of several huge drawings of tree trunks on narrow lengths of vellum suspended from the ceiling stretched fifteen feet to the floor below. Collaged here and there among the branching limbs were miniature images of Manos (several per tree) stretching and straining higher and higher among the birches and maples of her imaginary forest.
This turn to a natural setting comes as something of a surprise in her oeuvre. Manos’s riveting live performances fifteen years ago at the beginning of her career were quite different in kind, albeit not in theme or intention, which has always been physical and social. Notably, in her art, the body struggles against the built— or lately the organic—environment. Beginning in 2002, she garnered attention for her deter- mined efforts to squeeze herself into restrictive containers, primarily of a domestic sort. The challenge of contorting herself into small spaces certainly addresses the constraints women perennially face—as well as the concomitant urge to liberate themselves. Her Fridge (Seated) (2002) and Cabinet Thinker (2006) are indicative of this group of actions.
In the ambitious body of work that followed, Manos inaugurated her “climbs” as, lured beyond quotidian, household furnishings, she “climbed” the outside walls of buildings via the magic of video projection. In The Climb (71 Garfield) (2012) and The Climb (54 Jefferson) (2013) she scaled the multistoried facades of a loft building and museum, respec- tively. The first, located in Detroit, and the second, an exhibition venue in Grand Rapids, Michigan, depict Manos soundlessly mounting the urban cliffs of these two structures in “existential loops of human effort, moving along a tightrope between absurdity and solemnity,” as described by the artist. The projections, meticulously planned and produced at the University of Michigan Duderstadt Video Studio (where Manos teaches in the Stamps School of Art and Design), engage a spectator in the fiction of the climb as if it were real. One viscerally responds to the halting moves and faux falters of the person “climbing” the wall. And, charged up by the artist’s quixotic quest, we realize that the impe- tus to strive and reach further is as much everyone’s goal as it is the artist’s. Hence, for Manos the challenging vertical allure of the forest in 2014’s A Heightened State (an encounter due in part to Manos’s recent artist residencies in rural settings, plus the massive concrete columns of the gallery) might seem to have been a pre- destined incentive for her vision to expand outward and upward. Truly, Mount Everest might loom somewhere in the future.
Dennis Alan Nawrocki, September 2014
Copyright Essay’d 2014