Desert Dreams of Cocks and Bromance—Ann-Marie Manker at Whitespace

Ann-Marie Manker, Big Red, 2015; watercolor, pencik, ink on paper, 22 by 30 inches.
Ann-Marie Manker, Big Red, 2015; watercolor, color pencil, ink on paper, 22 by 30 inches.

In her new exhibition “El Gallo” (which means rooster or “cock” in Spanish), Ann-Marie Manker presents a surrealist fever dream where foreboding, dangerous-looking elements and characters take on a titillating appeal. Using a combination of drawing, painting, and a multimedia installation, she presents a world of morphological mutants and cartoonish characters set in an arid landscape. The work, while often colorful and sparkly, has a very ominous tone. Imagine maleficent fantasies as filtered through the mind of a cheery artist, and you get an idea of the dualistic nature of the art. I enjoyed the work and was left wondering from what dark corner of Manker’s psyche these strange images were culled.

The characters in this show reminded me of what would be called “rough trade” in the gay world. Rough trade are hypermasculine, lower-class men sought, and sometimes paid, as casual sexual partners by more privileged men. These are the tough guys you look at and desire, but can’t help but also be afraid of. This dichotomy of want and fear seems to permeate much of the work in “El Gallo.” From the strapping, green-toned cock-man introducing the show to the colorful rainbow of cast-resin axes, Manker is able to balance candy-coated pop imagery with horror-fantasy. It’s an interesting line to balance, and the artist does it very well.

Ann-Marie Manker, Tex Mex , 2015, Watercolor Pencil, Ink on Paper, 34.5” x 26."
Ann-Marie Manker, Tex Mex, 2015; watercolor color pencil, ink on paper, 22 by 30 inches.

The piece that gave the show its title is probably the best example of Manker’s surrealist vision. An imposing, muscle-bound, green-skinned man stands as if ready to defend himself. He has the head of a black cock, with beady, threatening eyes. A rattlesnake wraps around his arm, which ends in a tarantula and a pistol for a hand. Scorpions crawl down his washboard stomach towards a thick cactus penis. Bollo ties wrap around his blackened feet. He is a man you might want to touch and have to yourself, but proximity reveals the inherent risk.

Desert imagery is woven into much of the work in “El Gallo,” and you can easily imagine the dry, wind-swept world Manker’s characters call home. Manker made a video installation called Tucson 1988 that features a pastiche of dreamlike scenes of showdowns, rough riders, and other Western weirdness edited together into quick bursts of action. Manker cites Tucson as the inspiration for her mythical, shape-shifting creatures, and they would fit right in to her art film’s dusty, dangerous world.

Manker’s work reminds me of another, more widely circulated Tucson artist: Lisa Frank. Yes, the illustrator known for her stickers and folders with rainbow-pandas, tigers flying across the universe, and bejeweled kittens. That Lisa Frank. Both artists seem to need the clean desert landscape to bring forth their creative vision so they can conjure up a crazy, color-soaked universe stocked with mystical creatures. “El Gallo” looks like a Lisa Frank nightmare.

The small-scale paintings on wood are intriguing but aren’t as strong as the drawings. These works depict “bromance rituals” of men shaving each other, helping each other dress, or lighting a cigarette. Like the “rough trade” cock drawings, these works have hyper-masculine symbols woven into the work. Bandanas, backwards baseball caps, plaid shirts, and porno glasses all define the characters in these scenes. What I like most about these works is the slight shimmer in all of the images. The pearlescent paint embeds little flakes of shiny material in the wood, emasculating these dude-scenes with a glittery, sequined effect.

Ann-Marie Manker, Bucks, 2015; acrylic, color pencil, varnish on wood panel, 16 by 20 by 1½ inches.
Ann-Marie Manker, Bucks, 2015; acrylic, color pencil, varnish on wood panel, 16 by 20 by 1½ inches.

Manker’s work requires the viewer embrace incredibly conflicting themes and styles. Bubblegum horror, sexy terror, and chimerical aggression are all terms I would use to describe this body of work. Manker balances these contrasting elements beautifully in her work, and gives us a peek into her depraved, but kind of cheerful, mind.

Ann-Marie Manker will give an artist talk on Saturday, October 3, at 2pm at Whitespace. 

Matthew Terrell writes, photographs, and creates videos in the fine city of Atlanta. His work can be found regularly on the Huffington Post, where he covers such subjects as the queer history of the South, drag culture, and gay men’s health issues. 

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