I had a wonderful studio visit on Friday with Rob Mango, a TriBeCa artist known for his expressive sculpted paintings and daring use of color. Mango was among the first artists living and working in TriBeCa in the late 70s. He informed me, much to my late millennial awe, that he was in the room when the name ‘TriBeCa” was coined– at a tenant’s meeting to establish the artists’ right to stay in the previously non-residential neighborhood. Mango went on to found the Neo Persona Gallery, the first gallery to show work by TriBeCa artists, in 1984. In the years since, he has shown at galleries and museums across the country and around the world, while developing and refining his preferred aesthetic.
I am fond of his early works, which at times feel like reverberations of Dada absurdism, repackaged for an equally absurd era concerned with an equally senseless war. A sculpture entitled Dada actually announces this connection; I can practically picture the artist in his rebellious youth, adamantly comparing 1970s New York to Paris in the 1910s.
A desire to deconstruct and destroy meaning is often followed by a period of seemingly-infinite imagination. It happened in the 1920s, when Andrè Breton departed Dada and founded the surrealist group, and it happened in TriBeCa, when Mango parlayed his dabbles in Dada into a surrealist phase. In the ’80s and early ’90s he made a number of smooth phantasmagoric paintings emblematic of Dalí and Tanguy. With his predecessors the young Mango shared an interest in symbols and ancient cultures. In paintings like Discovering the Dead Sea Scrolls, he explored the relationships between these motifs, juxtaposing them to discover transhistorical themes and feelings.
In this highly symbolic work, a vaguely Hellenistic figure crouches on a shingled roof atop a large, ornamented scroll. He looks down towards the Hebrew letters etched into the parchment, and the startling Jester figure. This Harlequin, his face garishly painted black, red, and white, interrupts the chronology of ancient cultures above him. Might he be a time traveler, sent to divert the course of human history? Or is he a representation of collective anxiety as we approached Y2K, and looked back on thousands of years worth of time?
Symbols also appear in Mango’s surrealist landscapes from the same period. In these works, New York is always there, or hovering nearby, its skyscrapers enriched with ancient symbology. This may seem like a strange juxtaposition, but it reveals much about the artist’s reverence for his home city. By integrating ancient sarcophagi into the city skyline, as he did in Millennium, Mango identified New York as a descendent of Ancient Egypt– a culture whose greatness has been amplified and mythologized for thousands of years. It’s not an unfounded claim; a glittering sarcophagus encased within a skyscraper suggests an aesthetic relationship to art deco, and the tumultuous surf recalls the yearly flooding of the Nile.
In the late ’90s, Mango began incorporating sculpted elements into his paintings, a practice he continues today. Interestingly, his subject matter shifted too, away from the anachronisms of history and the city skyline and towards the investigation of bodies and the people who occupy them. Some motifs remain, like the harlequin, who I like to imagine as a devilish phantom, forever prancing through the recesses of the artist’s mind. But for the most part, Mango has spent the last twenty years focused on his muse– the female form.
This is a controversial thing to admit in today’s politicized artistic climate given the number of gratuitous female nudes in the art history canon. However, I feel strongly that Mango’s intentions, and the impact of his work, are positive contributions to contemporary art and the conversation around gender politics in the art world. Mango’s words and his work reveal a fascination with difference that never morphs into exploitation because he has taken the time to unravel societal definitions of femininity. His portraits exalt the strength and power of the female body, so his reverence feels authentic and earned. Furthermore, the artist never sexualizes his figures’ powerful bodies. If a whiff of sensuality is detected, it is a sensuality of spirit; emanating from, and controlled by, the figure herself.
Depth is Mango’s secret weapon in communicating his reverence for these figures. It lends each a kind of prominence while also letting some things stay hidden, in the shadows between planes. This is particularly apparent in the striking painting, Blue Dance. A photograph barely does Mango’s work justice, but this shot hints at the work’s depth.
Painted on canvas that’s been manipulated over sculpted foam, Blue Dance challenges traditional definitions of painting and sculpture. Like an Ancient Greek frieze carved in high relief, it is best viewed from the front, though several inches of real depth, carefully painted and molded, are still perceptible to the human eye, and contribute to the viewer’s experience with the work. These regions have no clear edge from this perspective, which has the effect of softening the perceived junctures between limbs. As these inches of material disappear into the shadow between hip and thigh, we are left to wonder about the fleshy interior of the human body.
In Blue Dance I perceive the artist’s curiosity as well as his admiration for the female body. The former manifests itself in the figure’s crevices— a result of Mango’s proclivity for high relief— which are regarded not with titillated anticipation, but with solemn respect for the body’s secrets. Meanwhile, the artist expresses his admiration for the female form through sinewy lines that evoke undulating curves. These fluid gestures are lyrical but, lest you mistake lyrical for sweetly feminine, Mango imbues each with strength and purpose. If Blue Dance were a melody, it would be sweeping, a symphony of harmonic major chords cascading in exaltation.
In other works, Mango paints the third plane—that straight line between viewer and canvas— an unexpected color. He chooses a sparkling copper for the portrait Male Figure with Brushes, one of the rare works by Mango to feature a male subject. The human eye, with its depth perception and peripheral vision, is better adjusted to perceive the effect of this encroaching hue; like the bass guitar in a rock song, it is felt rather than explicitly seen. This effect is so uncanny that I mistook the shiny paint for solid sheets of metal.
And it may as well be, since the metallic hue contrasts the dominant palette with the intensity of a foreign material. With their evocations of mineral substances, these shining panels render the harlequin a hybrid between man and statue. From the front, his fragmented body is carved into chunks of milky yellow-green and cool mauve flesh, a palette evocative of German Expressionist portraiture. But the human eye detects the glinting copper panels sparkling within each painterly incision.
These metallic strips highlight the figure’s deconstructed body and cast doubt on his humanity. Could this be some kind of copper alloy, with DNA mixed in? What would you call such a genetic creation? The fusion of matter and metal feels highly symbolic… perhaps it is a reflection on the rigidity and stoicism of Western masculinity. Or maybe, just maybe, it harks back to the most human question of all: what are we made of, and why are we here?
That is the crux of Mango’s work, and always has been. In his early days, the artist was drawn to art movements expressly created to ponder the significance of humanity. Neither Dada nor surrealism provided him a fulfilling answer, though they provoked aesthetically and conceptually intriguing work. With his adoption of sculpted elements, Mango drew closer to what he could feel was the answer to the elusive question.
It’s not easy to put into words. I said that, actually, and Mango quipped, “That’s why I’m an artist,” or something to that effect. But it’s true. For words to purely reflect the meaning of our existence, they’d have to be carefully arranged in a poem; the literary equivalent of fine art. Mango has found that poem. He’s written it a hundred times in the three dimensions of his sculpted paintings, rhyming colors with shine and secrets with depth, and hiding the meaning of life in-between the lines.
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