Arts & Entertainment, Gallery Beat

Gallery Beat – April 2014

Steve in Rubber Mask, 2001 Graphite on rag paper,  23" x 17" © Estate of Manon Cleary
Steve in Rubber Mask, 2001 Graphite on rag paper, 23″ x 17″ © Estate of Manon Cleary

I first met Manon Cleary’s artwork sometime around 1993 or 1994. It was at an exhibition at Addison Ripley’s old space behind the Phillips Collection. Back then there were several galleries in that space and I was making the rounds for some art magazine long since gone, and literally walked into the show without knowing anything about Manon Cleary.

I was hypnotized by what I saw. It was clear to the most casual observer that here was an artist who not only had the most enviable set of technical skills that I had ever seen, but also an equally enviable ability to grab a slice of energy out of her subject matter and deposit it into the artwork itself. I was so envious of this belligerent dual skill, so powerfully individual in a DC art scene back them that eschewed any sort of confrontational realism and loved acre after acre of abstraction of all hues and shapes.

Sometime after that I met her for the first time, and soon after I co-opened the first Fraser Gallery in Georgetown in 1996, and then I became good friends with her and spent many a good time in her splendid apartment in Adams Morgan, including a quite memorable New Year’s in either 1996 or 1997.

My next memory comes when she had an exhibition of her ex-boyfriend’s penis. Multiple paintings of that particular gent’s penis were the talk of Washington in those days, and for quite a long time, there always seemed to be a Manon Cleary penis in every MOCA group show.

Then I recall the disturbing scenes in her rape paintings, which I think were first exhibited at MAP’s old space in Baltimore. Here was the artist at her most powerful: taking the ultimate assault on a person and disseminating it to a powerful and beautifully painted series of images on canvas. Here was Cleary exerting the power of realism over all the other “isms” in a manner and form which only years of concentrated and meticulous work can deliver – the same span of years which eventually delivered the death prescription to this master.

Over the years that followed, we saw the quality of her spirit, as she continued to be a key part of the DC art scene, even as her health deteriorated. I last saw her at the book release party for 100 Artists of Washington, DC, in which she is – of course – included. She thanked me for including her in the book and I told her how honored I was that she was part of it.

Manon died in 2011… I used to call her “Manoncita” or Little Manon, and after she died, it struck me as ironic to see that term of endearment applied to such a giant of an artist.

Manon Cleary, Obsessive Observer: A New Perspective Through Her Photographic Studies at the Arts Club of Washington is one of the visual arts shows that showcases the immense artistic muscle of this late, vastly talented DC area artist. I say “one” because we will continue to hear about the great Manon Cleary for many more years to come, as her artistic footprint – already quite formidable while she was alive – is further cemented in the nation’s arts treasure chest.

The exhibition, produced by her husband, F. Steven Kijek, “explores for the first time Cleary’s use of photography in creating her paintings and works on paper. Within the arc of these works one can follow Cleary’s observation and exploration of composition, shadow and light in her photographs and her final works. Cleary, who passed away in 2011, was an acclaimed artist and was heavily involved in the DC arts scene for several decades.”

The exhibition runs through April 26th at the Arts Club of Washington’s galleries located at 2017 “I” Street, NW, Washington, D.C. My good friend, Dr. Jack Rasmussen, director and curator of the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, is the guest curator for the exhibition.

This exhibition is the first to focus on the “artist’s use of photographic studies and provides fresh insight into Cleary’s creative process. The show presents works from the Estate of Manon Cleary, as well as a few private collectors, including selections from Cleary’s Mystery Series, Breathless Series, and graphite drawings, all to be displayed beside her photographic studies.”

Cleary loved to discuss and talk about her work and she “explained that she worked primarily from photographs, stating that she used ‘graphite or oils to produce works that are photographically convincing but not necessarily with fidelity to my photo sources. I would like the viewer to notice the unique interpretation – the “me”- I bring to my work.’ Cleary wrote in the early 1980s, ‘abstraction of forms successfully freed me from reliance on photo images, with results being photographically convincing, but not photographically accurate.'”

The Arts Club of Washington will host additional events open to the public to further explore the art of Manon Cleary. A symposium, “Between Painting and Photography: The Vision of Manon Cleary,” will be held on April 9 from 6:30 pm to 8:30 pm. Panelists will include Susan Hauptman, whose drawings are in numerous museum collections including those of the National Portrait Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Corcoran Gallery, Judy Greenberg, director of the Kreeger Museum, Jared Miller, a former student of Cleary’s, Jack Rasmussen, director and curator of the American University Museum at the Katzen Art Center, Eric Denker, senior lecturer at the National Gallery of Art, and Erich Keel, former head of education at the Kreeger Museum.

 A catalog produced for this exhibition features an essay by Stephen May, a frequent contributor to Art News and other publications. In addition, F. Steven Kijek will present an illustrated lecture on Manon Cleary’s life and art on April 22 from 6:30 pm to 8:30 pm. The Arts Club invites the academic community to use the exhibition for its fine art and art history students and plans additional opportunities for use by professors and students.

Written by: F. Lennox Campello

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