Amanda Manitach’s new works on display at Bryan Ohno Gallery fit neatly into her growing oeuvre, but for those who know her work—her light style, her explorations of Eros and Thanatos on the page—there is something new to see. For those who don’t know her work, her voluptuous blend of the sensual and macabre is evident and readily accessible, as these works are less challenging to the viewer at first glance than some of her other work. (These are straightforward portraits, right? Well…) For those who are familiar with the source material for many of the portraits, Georges Bataille’s novella L‘histoire de l’oeil, Manitach’s ability as a skilled illustrator is immediately evident and gives one pause to reflect on the nature of the novella’s small cast of psychopaths and victims. In all cases, there is more than first meets the eye.
In Manitach’s work, form and content balance each other; her delicate and light hand diffuses lush compositions of hermaphroditic bodies—sometimes richly garbed, sometimes missing flesh from limbs and heads, sometimes witness to or victims of some sort of gory event—such that her tableaux seem to be of apparitions still enacting a cycle of sex and death though their bodies are mostly immaterial. They invite a narrative of their own without easy answers, and though Manitach often tethers her work to works of literature where these ideas are more explicitly explored and unpacked—Marquis de Sade in the past—her works create on their own an aesthetic and a surface where the body, gender, costume, ritual, sex and death meet in a pale, fluid twilight.
This is true of the portraits of Bataille’s characters at Bryan Ohno Gallery, but here each figure is isolated, mostly filling the pane, inviting one to reflect more deeply on their nature—the nature and the social milieu that inspires them to commit outrageous and fetishistic acts, culminating in snuff and necrophilia. There is plenty of explicit action in the book for illustrators to reproduce, some of which might have been a fitting scene for Manitach’s earlier works—and for all I know, did indeed inspire a few—but Manitach is not an illustrator in this role; she is expanding in operatic fashion the quiet moments, glances, stances that Bataille doesn’t really describe in the book but are easily imagined by the reader who considers these characters beyond what Bataille tells us of them.
These character studies are as diffuse as a daydream, seemingly ready to dissolve into themselves. Watercolor was the perfect medium for characters who inhabit a book whose pages are absolutely dripping with body fluids—sweat, ejaculate, urine and blood. They are saturated by fluid, but still mostly colorless, as if the ink on the page has run and formed these ghosts—bodies and clothing minimally rendered, even a bit coarse—as if their overly wet bodies are on the verge of dissolving but are held together by the fierce, murderous resolve of their eyes. The faces are finely rendered, textured and colored, and the body seems to pour forth from their eyes. In the case of the damaged and doomed character of Marcelle, Manitach’s renderings successfully make her into something deeply sad, as if spilled from tears, without being maudlin.
It is worth discussing Bataille’s work in brief for those who do not know the story or why he wrote it. L‘histoire de l’oeil (The Story of the Eye in English) was published in 1928 under the pseudonym Lord Auch. Bataille admired Nietzsche and Sade immensely, but fully had his wits about him when he published his novella and he wrote not from a place of philosophy but phenomenology, providing a profane vision with no particular goal in mind. It was a catharsis—so it was all the more appropriate that his pseudonym essentially means “Lord of the Shithouse.” Bataille did not admire Sade for the Libertinism that the Marquis described; to the contrary, Bataille was absolutely opposed to the empty hedonism that Sade had so thoroughly documented and made as a map of human experience. That Sade had so fully charted that map was admirable.
Bataille’s Story has many hallmarks of a Libertine novel—a deathly pursuit of sensual pleasure above all else, sacrilege and defilement of religious icons, even a grotesque of martyrdom—but Bataille does not moralize. He does not bring his murderers to justice or a travesty of it, nor does he show them coming to a “just” end by the consequence of their actions alone—the justice of nature or a God that Bataille regarded as absent. His anonymous narrator gleefully, abruptly ends his tale as he and his cohorts prepare to sail off and continue their escalating debauchery. Bataille saw the failings of arbitrary law and morality, the sickness of modern righteousness beneath a dead god, so he could not rely on punishment to resolve the plot. As human desire and aesthetics form the basis for so much morality, by documenting the depths of the former, Bataille short-circuits the whole system a bit. Earnest readers see the emptiness of it, fill in the blanks, and maybe even reboot from a foundation of empathy into a purer sense of ethics, not a system imposed artificially—a system so atrocious that monsters like the narrator, the seductress Simone, and the rich libertine Edmund become a terrible inevitability.
Manitach’s success is her balance between the picturesque and the grotesque, and so if she is drawn readily to writers like Bataille and Sade, it is because there is a kindred approach to these things. Their dissolution is moral while hers is more material, and again the use of watercolor is a perfect medium for her approach and the subject matter. Water—the source of life as we know it—remains potentially corruptive, destructive, even the method of escape for Bataille’s villains. I do not think the admiration between Manitach and Bataille would have been one-sided. He wrote: “As for irrevocable ugliness, it is exactly as detestable as certain beauties: the beauty that conceals nothing, the beauty that is not the mask of ruined immodesty, the beauty that never contradicts itself and remains eternally at attention like a coward.” Manitach’s twilit aesthetic in her portraits of his characters would have pleased him, no doubt.
In this show at Bryan Ohno Gallery, the most physically dominant pieces in the room are not from The Story of the Eye, but are a self-portrait (one of two in the show) and a portrait of musician and designer Eric Fisher. In Manitach’s self-portraits, the depth and watery look in the faces of Bataille’s characters is nowhere to be seen. In the larger one, she straddles a vivid blue chaise lounge in a pose of immodest anasyrma. She looks at the viewer over her shoulder with a face flatly charming, bright-eyed but vacant. The artist may be nude, but she has not invested herself with any of the vulnerability and complexity of the other portraits. Rather than dissolving into a slushy wetness, she is absorbed into the white background, as if a negative space biting into the couch. The horizontality of it makes it impossible to take it all in without stepping back, but the further one steps back, the more her body disappears—incorruptible and impenetrable. She is afloat, as even the large, colorful heels she is wearing would lift her from the floor and—in the horizontal—extend the body, drawing attention to its extremities, not the center where her sex is faintly visible. It’s attractive and suggestive, but most of all defiant of the gaze that would try to capture it all in one glib glimpse.
That perennially problematic male gaze is explored in violent and grotesque ways throughout Bataille’s novella; the eponymous eye of the story is that of El Granero, a handsome young bullfighter who was gored to death in the ring in 1922. Bataille witnessed this death in person, and it served as part of the inspiration for his story (and is recalled within it), including a detailed account of Granero’s right eye being enucleated by the horn that gouged his skull. In this central scene, the exhibitionistic Simone has inserted a slain bull’s testicles into her vagina and achieves sexual satisfaction as the handsome young matador is penetrated to death, right through the point of his gaze. In the ultimate climax of the book, a victim is murdered at the point of his own climax, his eye is removed, and Simon inserts this into herself. By proxy, the male gaze in a most morbid, blind and deathly form is inverted doubly, first by being penetrated (by a potently phallic symbol, no less) to the delight of a castrating, ecstatic female gaze, then by penetrating the object of its fascination in an anatomical travesty, as the narrator observes the eye peering out from within Simone, leaking tears of urine.
To the reader, this either becomes an indictment of lewd aesthetics and sensuality or a grievous offense of good taste—which is to say, it grievously exposes that we are capable of such debauchery and are unwilling to face it. In light of this, Manitach’s life-sized portrait of Eric Fisher is powerful and alluring and a little disturbed. The subject still holds the book in his hand, sitting on an armchair. The frame and the work is more square, a balance of vertical and horizontal, and Fisher’s body and seat fill the majority of the pane. Likewise, it is aesthetically somewhere between the watery ghosts and Manitach’s self-portrait—watery but fleshy, sprawled rather than compact, not self-conscious but rather dazed, somewhere between repose and alertness, arousal and lethargy, contemplation and stupor. The handsome face looks straight out, over the heads of most viewers with his crotch hung closer to eye level. Frozen in his chair, Fisher becomes a stand-in for most people first encountering Bataille’s work or any work that inverts aesthetic hierarchies and blurs the lines between sacred and profane. This is the great aesthetic experience, the transcendent moment of discovery that seems to lie so opposite of the oblivion of orgasm. In Bataille and Manitach, the two seem to lie closer than before, but walking through the polluted fluids of their worlds, one somehow emerges a little more sublimated, a little purer than one entered.
Amanda Manitach’s new works are on display through March 1 at Bryan Ohno Gallery.