Silver Space
A Collaborative Creative Network in St. Louis, MO

Life In Plaster

Life In Plaster features the artwork of Peter Manion, An artist living and working in St. Louis, Missouri.

Life In plaster

Written by laura schilli

Edited by Marina may


Like molting skins, enormous, highly pigmented sheets of plaster in various stages of disintegration appear to cling to walls of the gallery in the World Chess Hall of Fame, invading and transforming the space into crumbling prismatic landscapes.

The monumental works in Universal Turf, Peter Manion’s solo exhibition, speaks to the passage of time and self-deterioration.

The locus of the show, a work also titled Universal Turf, suffuses the gallery space in an undulating spectrum of color. Suspended from the ceiling and with the bottom edge pooling on the ground, the work nearly submerges the viewer in its vibrant tidal wave.

“I was using this new material, this dye that was really translucent and the pigment of it was intense,” says Manion. “When I worked with it, it did so many amazing things. I didn’t have to layer much and it created this rainbow spectrum of color.” 

He continues to speak specifically of Universal Turf. “I physically sculpted it to the wall, made ridges and then sprayed it. Some areas would get sprayed and other areas wouldn’t and then when you flattened it out, it appeared three dimensional. I used this air compressor spray gun to create this pixelated vapor. After layering, you would get this vibration that would happen.” 

This process creates a trompe l’oeil effect, where the work appears to be separating from the wall, even though it’s embedded and shaped to the surface. 

It wasn’t until his 2015-2016 residency in Spain that Manion began focusing on large scale sculpture. “I felt like this residency was so far away from St. Louis, so out of any comfort zone. I said, ‘this is the perfect place to be a different person, to be a different artist without any judgement,’” says Manion. “It was sort of in this anonymous way that I found to make these sculptures. I wanted to do this scale. I wanted them to be graphic and I wanted to do it outside. And so those three things were my goals at this residency.”

Manion references his previous body of work, The Underwear Series, comprised of black ink drawings on white parchment which illustrate a middle-aged man's experiences of physical and emotional transition. Themes of change in the mind and body during the natural aging cycle are under constant investigation throughout Manion’s body of work. He reflects on the inevitability of aging and the natural process of physical atrophy most overtly in his sculptural practice. 

“I wanted to build a sculpture that was like a towel that would in a sense hang over a chair and it would break and sort of show those cracks and age and all those things,” he says. “I would start troweling plaster right on top of the paper and it would sometimes hold and sometimes it wouldn’t and sometimes it would fall off and flake off and I started liking that idea, but it wouldn’t be flexible.”

Manion began exploring the mechanisms of deterioration by tearing the plaster off the wall and throwing the pieces on ground, kicking and tossing them until they cracked. When asked about how this process affected the preservation of the sculptures, he admitted that he initially interacted too intrusively with his work, opting instead to step back and let allow naturally deteriorate.

“When I first started, it was originally this idea of aging and time, and as I did more work I realized, it’s an important aspect, but it’s also a hindrance to a certain extent. If it deteriorates too much, it loses its purpose. I sort of trained back from it a little bit to stop the aging process in order for it to become a fixed object.”

“I became a little more gentle with them, strangely. Now I’m a little bit more methodical about how I wrap them. It doesn’t change the fact that they are changing. I just don’t have to be as physical with them. It was almost as if I was manipulating them to change. Time will take the toll on them, not me. I’m a little more cautious and thoughtful about it now.”

Originally from St. Louis, Manion was born in 1971 and grew up in a two hundred year old house in the Central West End. He speaks of his father as a trailblazer and a man adamant about living in St. Louis City. His mother, an immigrant from Argentina, was pleased with the idea, and loved living in the city proper. Early on, due to the necessity of maintaining such an old home, Manion cultivated a practical skillset. He learned how to make household repairs and complete more complicated projects like tuck pointing.

Manion’s artistic career hasn’t been precisely linear, but his auxiliary experiences have largely informed his practice. A few years after graduating with a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he capitalized upon this skills he developed in childhood, becoming a general contractor that rehabbed historic St. Louis buildings. During this time, he took a ten year hiatus from studio art to start a family and focus on construction. He declared that art was no longer part of his life.

“I feel like I cursed the gods when I said that,” says Manion. “I was really lost when that happened because when I wasn’t into construction, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I had already given up art, I had no supplies. I had rented this building that I had redone to an artist. She knew what was going on and she said, ‘Peter you should start painting again.’ She was renting the whole first floor and I didn’t want to impede on her space, so I started painting in the basement, where my workshop was, and used whatever materials were available and it grew from there.”

This scarcity of material sparked Manion’s adoption of plaster as an expressive, abstracted medium, and contributed to the development as a sculptural practice. Plaster, as a material, is extraordinarily versatile. It has both a rigidity that allows it to come apart, but also the potential to be repaired. It’s porous by design, allowing for a level of permeability that enhances the adhesion of color to its surface.

“When I reintroduced plaster into my work, and stained it with inks and colors, it sort of reminded me of that and I felt really like the way it absorbs the paint, or this stain, it has this longevity, sanded away, there is still remnants of it, you can repair it.” He continued, “It just has these different traits to where the same painting for me was this physical act you had to really erase everything and then start over and there is this purity with it that I seem to connect.”

In 2017, Manion was selected by the World Chess Hall of Fame’s Chief Curator, Shannon Bailey, to help curate a group exhibition with St. Louis artists which was a recreation of the 1944 exhibition, The Imagery of Chess, curated by Marcel Duchamp at the Julian Levy Gallery in New York City. Peter chose the artists in which the World Chess Hall of Fame would commission to do their own interpretations of the game of chess. Artists created work through their own personal lenses of how the game relates to art and life. Manion had also participated as an artist in this revamped exhibition.

“My piece was probably one of the only pieces that wasn’t chess oriented. It was more of conceptual idea of how I visualize space and time and how your brain thinks.”

He continues, “Growing up was kind of a lonely experience. You had to make and create your own adventures. Chess was part of that for me. I would have this competition with this computer [chess game] which would sort of aggravate me, surprised me and pushed me. Sometimes I would play chess the normal way and then I started giving life to the pieces, changing their positions and [the rules]. I tend to think of objects as having personalities.” 

It was after The Imagery of Chess: Saint Louis Artists when Manion was approached again by Bailey, asking him to put together his own solo exhibition at the museum.

“It was a huge surprise for me...This was really coming up with an idea and building and making work for this specific show. After I said yes, I had a panic attack because I didn’t know how it was going to work.”

“What I loved about the Hall of Fame, is the professionalism of the staff and the personal qualities of the people that help make [the show] work better for me.”

For Universal Turf, Peter decided to experiment with scale, transforming the gallery into his own unique environment. At the entrance to the gallery is another expansive piece titled Aye. Hung flat against a black painted wall, the work is coated with thick, black layers of spray paint. The piece borders on imperceptible. It’s presence is only indicated by the arterial network of white cracks running through its densely coated plaster surface.

“I wanted it hang like a curtain,” says Manion. “Some people told me, ‘Oh when I walked in, I didn’t even see it,’ but that was sort of the purpose. I wanted it to represent the universe. I wanted people to look at the blackness and the white in between. The color pieces were elements of the universe and the black piece was sort of ignored.”

In the back of the gallery space, there is an area that welcomes audience participation where visitors can toss pieces of Manion’s plaster work onto a wood board. The plaster pieces are caught by its felt backing.

“In the original show, [The Imagery of Chess: Saint Louis Artists], I built a shelf that had pieces. And the idea came from an artist friend, Meghan Grubb. She suggested something where people can experience the materials, they can feel it and touch it. I noticed throughout my artistic practice that people always want to touch my work, they want to feel it and understand how it stays together. I wanted it to be un-intimidating and very simple in the sense of the shapes.”

Manion orients this particular exhibition as an exploratory benchmark in his artistic practice. “This show gave me a lot of learning experience. I was doing something new… this enormous installation aspect which I have never done before. I was pulling myself away from being a painter.”

Universal Turf is a solo exhibition, featuring work by Peter Manion, and is on view now at the World Chess Hall of Fame until April 14, 2019. 

Manion has work on view at the Ace Hotel Chicago in another solo exhibition titled Next PlayGround that will be on view through March 19th. 

He also has work in a group exhibition, ONYX, at the Alfa Gallery in Miami where he is currently being represented. You can see his work in ONYX until March 6th.  

Photos courtesy of World Chess Hall of Fame