Studio Visit: Christopher P McManus
By Linda Yun
I first learned of Christopher’s work as a member of Vox Populi, a non-profit artist-run collective based in Philadelphia, while reviewing his application to become a new artist member. Christopher’s work was hilarious, visually engaging on so many levels, smart, tender, and tackling some very complicated issues without a heavy-hand in judgment. Instead, his work was grounded in what seemed to be a keen awareness of human behavior and tendencies. I have since been fortunate to see many new and interesting works by Christopher addressing such issues as human relations, urban sprawl, and pop culture, and have worked with him on the Space Savers Project. Christopher’s most recent body of work, one of us, will be on view at Vox Populi through September 29, 2013.
Linda Yun: Some of the things that draw me to your work are your sense of humor and the observations you make in regards to human behavior and pop culture. The work is unique, engaging and funny, yet I have a sense that the laughs are never the driving force. Humor can be like an invitation to the viewer to examine other issues your work brings up. Can you talk about how you view humor coming into play, how you use it, and how you hope viewers will respond?
Christopher P McManus: I want my work to engage viewers, to be fun, to convey a sense of irony and joy. There is a lot of randomness in popular taste and I like to play up the absurd or surreal aspects of things that are familiar to us. I want my viewers to feel in on the joke. But you’re right! I don’t think humor is a driving force. I’m just as interested, if not more, in commenting on culture, and humor is a way to do that. My influences come from a variety of sources, from slapstick cartoons I used to watch as a kid to television to pop music to memes on the internet to other artists’ work. I appreciate the time we live in— an era when technology has democratized what culture is or can be, has taken power away from elite taste-makers (to a degree) to deliver culture to the public. I want my work to reflect the times we live in. Humor seems like a way to engage people viscerally while calling attention to broader issues that I might want to explore in my work.
LY: An obvious strength in your work is your ability to make, with custom imagery, sound, objects, and graphics that feel very connected to your hand and sensibility. There are elaborate sculptures created for animations that require much labor, among other things, which make the work unlike any other. Do you enjoy this process of making? What do you find to be your biggest challenge?
CM: Thank you for noticing! I love the process of making. I love the tangible feel and multidimensional quality that making sculptures, puppets, creating soundtracks for videos, etc. creates. I love the problem solving part of trying to bring my ideas to life. I like a layered and multidimensional look and lately, I’ve even tried to create this effect using software that encourages homogenization in style – After Effects and Photoshop. It’s incredibly time consuming—both the making on and off screen. I really dislike work that is shoddily constructed. I think it’s an indication of artistic laziness. I don’t really believe in highly conceived art that is executed poorly. Poor execution is terribly distracting.
The biggest challenge is definitely time. Most of my sculpture, sets, and puppets are made with paper mache. I make everything by hand. It’s grueling, not only in the slow process of paper mache but the waiting for the drying, the trial and error in mechanization of the puppets. Video work is also extremely time consuming. I’m poor so I’ve got sub-par video equipment, and rendering kills me. Projects can take me over a year to execute — the one I’m working on now, Last Supper, is especially grueling because I’m going for a painterly effect, no contour lines. Thanks for letting me vent about that!
LY: If given the option of no limitations (financial, space, time, etc.), do you feel you would continue to make work in the same manner? Or do you suspect it would look different or be produced differently?
CM: This is a great question. Truly, I think most of my process would stay the same. A faster computer, for instance, would just enable me to work faster, more steadily, without staring at the computer screen waiting for things to render so that I can OK it and move on. Also, if resources weren’t an issue, I’d have a lot more time to work. I love working. My wife can attest to the fact that I am used to 10-12 hour workdays when I have the freedom for them. The problem is that I also need to work so we can have money to live! And that takes time away from steady work. In an ideal world, I’d be in the studio all the time, churning out new work without interruption. I have a lot of ideas that I want to execute.
LY: Much of your studio process seems to be a gathering of “stuff,” whether it be accumulating materials, images mined from the internet, viral snippets of pop culture, or research. What are some of the sources for these materials?
CM: Specific sources include: cardboard boxes and phone books; a lot of YouTube and Vimeo; the New York Times; Netflix Watch Instantly; what my friends post on Facebook. I guess I source from everywhere, but it’s unconscious. I follow TV, internet, print, the news. I like work that conveys a sense of the time we live in, that is in dialogue not only with artists who have come before but also with pop culture now.
LY: There is an element of social commentary with much of the work. Can you talk about that aspect in relation to how you want to affect the viewer?
CM: I come from a science and policy background. My academic background is in forestry, public health, and international development, so maybe I have an affinity for thinking about issues from those frames. Some of my work has touched on these kinds of issues directly (e.g., obesity; sprawl) but mostly I’m working from a personal place. I am responding to things that are in my immediate environment, whether through exposure to the internet, trends in social capital and community or gentrification, or my love for apocalypse and zombie flicks that feed into paranoia about the end of the world.
LY: Is exhibiting work in a gallery setting your ideal mode of presentation, or are there other forums you are drawn to or feel more connected with?
CM: I have mixed feelings about showing video in art galleries. I think that’s why all of my video art shows have had an interactive component. My favorite place, so far, to show work was at the 2011 Disposable Film Festival in San Francisco, CA. The festival was screened at the Castro Theater. You should Google “Castro Theater” so you can see this place: mezzanine, balconies, plaster work, gold leaf accents, chandelier, pipe organ that lowers into the stage! It was awesome! I showed a humorous short called Love Letter, in which I write a love letter to my stomach. The show was sold out and theater was packed! The energy of 1400 people all laughing like crazy, in unison, at these grotesque paper mache puppets I animated was exhilarating.
I have always wanted to create a TV show and make a million kabillion bucks. I’d love to have a TV show. Truly, I always thought I’d love to have an animated series on TV. It would be incredible to work with a team and execute that kind of series for something like Adult Swim.
LY: Finally, can you name a range of your major influences?
CM: I’m not consciously thinking about influences when I’m working – isn’t that the critic’s job? I can think of things I like or would like to see more of. Growing up, I was always really excited by stuff like Garbage Pail Kids, M.U.S.C.L.E., D. Compose & Tendril from Inhumaniods, Masters of the Universe, and Madballs. I like lot of different films, especially ones that create special effects with puppets and tricky editing. Here are some names: Lucio Fulci, Michael Haneke, Terry Gilliam, Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, and John Carpenter. I love the animation of Lotte Reiniger, Yuri Norstein, Jan Švankmajer, Bruce Bickford, almost every young animator coming out of Royal College of Art now. I really appreciate work form artists like Paul McCarthy, Steina and Woody Vasulka, Takeshi Murata, Shaye Saint John, and Shiro Takahashi. I like food: Sally’s Apizza (New Haven, CT) and nectarines. I played bass as a teen, and I always loved the slapped baselines from Night Court and Seinfeld (probably a keyboard actually). I’ll watch any and all zombie and last man on Earth movies, The Omega Man, Escape from New York, The Road. My wife is the reader/ writer of the family but I like writers like Hemmingway, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, George Saunders, Cormac MacCathry, and Neil Postman.
Christopher P. McManus is a sculptor and video artist. He created Hair and Diamonds to experiment with video, animation, and puppetry. His most recent work, one of us, can be seen at Vox Populi gallery through Sept 29. Contact Christopher: hairanddiamonds@