Kylie Manning, Montserrat, 2023, oil on linen, 60" × 72" (152.4 cm × 182.9 cm) © Kylie Manning


Ted Barrow on Kylie Manning's "Montserrat"

Published Thursday, Oct 5, 2023

In a new essay spotlighting Kylie Manning's Montserrat (2023), writer Ted Barrow explores Mark Rothko's influence on Manning's painting.

It’s a funky term, but how else would you describe the “fishy sibyls, ” the groupings of bodies and faces, sometimes pyramidal, sometimes pedimental, in Kylie Manning’s work? Recalling Michelangelo’s androgynous prophets on the Sistine chapel ceiling, Manning’s figures address us with quietude; something solid and reassuring to hang onto – a hook -- in the midst of fluid gestural traces of ravishing chromatic arrangements. They are fishy because they are both aquatic and tricky: like a wet net on churning water, slowly sinking but still seen.

In 2023’s Montserrat the figure is sublimated to an outline: a series of broken marks that might suggest the top of a head and sloping shoulders, but may not. A leg-like form thrashes out of a thick burst of chilly Courbet Green and white strokes, calling to mind the “white legs disappearing into the green water” in Auden’s poem about Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. Auden’s poem is a study of immersion and everyday tragedy, how life goes on for all of us until it suddenly doesn’t. The loss of Icarus and grief of Dedalus at the point of contact between falling body and body of water is a reversal of birth: a return to amniotic fluid.

The themes of maternity and artistic parentage ripple through much of Kylie’s work, emerging in Montserrat as a meditation on an early figurative Rothko, Portrait of Mary (1936), which itself distills Vermeer’s The Art of Painting into one solitary figure, bunching their dress as if pregnant. Rothko, the favorite artist of Manning’s mother, loved orange and titled his works simply by the colors used. Manning engages Rothko’s distillation and color but arrives at a very different end: the title evokes both Rothko and Our Lady of Montserrat, a polychrome Byzantine figure of maternity in Catalonia.

The title is also a window into what ideas Manning gleans from art history: interpreting Rothko’s most figurative contemplation of Vermeer at his most allegorical allows Manning to nearly dissolve her figures altogether into her signature fluid matrix of diaphanous strokes. Montserrat orange hovers like a slowly-fading flash where, in an earlier version of the painting, Mary’s face, now erased, once was.

In the past year, Manning herself gave birth to Quinn, and thus parentage – artistic and actual -- may gain a new valence for the painter. In that time, she has also worked with ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, designing the atmospheric backdrop and costumes for “From You Within Me,” which premiered in May. The scale of her paintings and live dancers in the production necessitated that Manning remove the figures from her tableaux. Manning’s water broke the same night of the last performance of Wheeldon’s ballet, an insane coincidence that only underscores her instinctual fusion of art and labor. To describe Manning’s commitment to painting as “going into labor” is almost too on the nose. This rumination on Rothko, motherhood, and the expansion of the field of painting in her work has resulted in the sibyls getting fishier, sinking further into the canvas, almost disappearing. Hopelessly hooked, we now have no recourse but to follow them.

  • Essays — Ted Barrow on Kylie Manning's "Montserrat", Oct 5, 2023