Ann-Marie Manker is a favorite Atlanta artist, and it’s easy to see why. Her paintings of fantastical worlds are well executed, graphically striking and wildly colorful.
The new works in “Under the Rainbow,” her exhibition at Whitespace gallery through May 11, are simultaneously cheerful, surreal, trippy and troubling. Painted in acrylic and ink on varnished wooden panels, one to two feet on a side, they boast vivid colors that pop against slick black backgrounds. The gallery walls have been painted a dark gray that heightens the effect.
Manker, who teaches at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta, composes fantasyscapes in which rainbows arc or meander through the sky, flow like rivers and gush like waterfalls. Cloud formations are sometimes anthropomorphic. Touches of iridescent paint suggest fairy dust. But you won’t see any leprechauns, unicorns or other magical creatures here. Instead, a young woman — usually alone, her face obscured by her long hair — poses coyly or engages in ambiguous activities.
In her artist statement, Manker sets the stage by writing, “My artwork explores the daydream fantasies of a femme fatale.” And she says on her blog, “I’m interested in drawing young girls, rebellious in nature, floating in a fantasy world where it is safe to live dangerously.” She attempts to convey her “disconnect” from the realities of war, terrorism and oppression.
In “Niagara,” the young woman sits on what looks like a cushion floating on the precipice of a waterfall. She is turned away from us, one hand grabbing a bundle of large candles on the riverbank. It’s probably no accident that they also resemble sticks of dynamite.
In “Dark Matters,” something ominous has already happened. The female figure is in the foreground, her face buried in her hands, while in the background black smoke from a raging fire disrupts puffy white clouds. On the black body of water behind her, colors from what could be an exploded rainbow float on the surface like an oil slick, as if BP had gone drilling in Candyland.
Manker is intrigued by femmes fatales and female suicide bombers. The subject of “Praying Mantis,” a femme fatale in more ways than one, wears a white burka and black bloomers, her foreshortened bare legs and high heels seemingly reaching toward the viewer. Wielding two rainbow-striped guns, she floats in the air as if ascending to heaven. Manker has suggested that this might be a fantasy of the young women “empowered” to carry out suicide missions.
Flanking “Praying Mantis” are “Trophy 1” and “Trophy 2,” suggesting that they might be vaguely connected. Here we see the woman close up, as she cups in her hands pulled, gold-capped teeth and a tuft of pubic hair. Rendered in a gray-scale illustrative style, she is apparently deprived of the escapist fantasies provided in the surrounding Technicolor wonderlands.
According to the artist statement, available at the front desk, extremists in Somalia have banned gold teeth like those in “Trophy 1.” They’ve also banned bras, a number of which are being shed by a sex kitten in Manker’s “Watering Hole.” Does having this information change one’s reading of the work? That’s the perennial question of how much information an artist should provide and by what means: press release, statement, titles, the imagery itself. The answer depends on whether the artist wants viewers to understand the meaning, and with Manker I’m not clear about her intentions. Perhaps too much of the narrative remains in her head.
Also in the show are four quirky textile pieces that resemble goofy ceremonial masks or cartoon ghosts. They’re made from lacy fabrics with faces crafted from things such as taxidermy eyes, tufts of rabbit fur and cast teeth. One pukes a rainbow of synthetic hair. On a pedestal, a white hood with two cut-out eyes and snaking black braids comes close to suggesting a burka if not a Halloween costume, as does the more Casper-looking of the wall pieces.
I like Manker’s paintings. It’s hard not to. But I want to like them more, and something stops me. They are formally seductive, but the figures are inert and leave me shrugging my shoulders. The takeaway lesson in this artist’s work might be that sometimes there are just no answers.
You can see more of Manker’s work on our Facebook page.