Andrew Mania’s work, and most things written about him, have largely referenced two incidents: his mother’s escape from Russia in World War II and her sighting of a yeti as she fled, and how his father – a German paratrooper – rescued Mussolini from an alpine prison in an infamous mission. Mania’s idiosyncratic work is built from highly personal origins that he develops within his paintings, sculptures and installations. His family legends have all merged into one, continually revisited and interrogated in his work, merging with references to recent art history and Old Master drawings.
This exhibition was billed as a double show: Mania's work alongside his personal collection of photographs by Carl Van Vechten. A 20th-century American art photographer and patron of the Harlem Renaissance, Van Vechten was born in Iowa and worked as a publisher, writer and photographer in New York. Initially it seems unlikely that the two should have much in common. But Van Vechten is not just a source of imagery or inspiration for Mania; he’s a collaborator of sorts in this exhibition, despite the fact that he died in New York ten years before Mania was born in Bristol. In earlier works such as Yetiscape (2002) Mania appropriated found paintings, second-hand frames and furniture to make fantastical landscapes, projecting his family memories onto the objects. Here, Mania’s collection of Van Vechten photographs provided a rich back-story to the work, highlighting the relationship between the two artists’ practices.
The gallery was dimly lit, a few points of light emanating from some coloured bulbs that formed part of Mania’s sculptures. The works alternated between one by Mania and a series of photographs by Van Vechten. Some were hung onto strips of fabric resembling bedspreads or tablecloths, and not directly onto the wall. A monitor on the floor displayed Mania’s single-channel video Mute (2004): a black and white silhouette of a man’s face flashes in and out of focus as dappled light flickers through a leafy treetop in the wind. Mania’s Double Shelf (2006) is a display of objects, arranged to mirror each other. At opposing corners of the upper and lower shelves sit two kitschy black and gold piggy banks: one faces the wall, the other looks out. A small hardcover book by Van Vechten, The Blind Bow-boy (1925), lies flat, while two portraits by Mania are hung over the shelves, not directly in line. They’re both of the same man, a friend of Mania’s, who gazes up in opposite directions in the two images. His dramatic stance resembles ballet dancer Hugh Laing’s poses in five of Van Vechten’s photographs.
Mania’s invitation to view his collection of Van Vechten’s work wasn’t an entirely open one: works were kept at a distance, obscured by wire, dim light and the reflection of his images in the photographer's. The Convict (2006) is made of portrait and profile images of a young man whose 1942 mug-shot Mania bought on eBay. The two views of the figure hang side by side, an oval frame of copper gauze stretched between them. Through the rest of the gallery there were Mania’s drawings, consisting of portraits within silhouettes, some faces rendered so lightly they were barely visible, and more black and white photographic portraits by Van Vechten, all hung like elevated, enshrined icons. Surrounded by bric-à-brac and dim lighting, Mania obscures the act of looking at them, while adding his personal touch to the works that aren’t his.
Van Vechten shot portraits of intellectuals and artists of the past century, ones often ignored or neglected in the mainstream. The yetis and patterns drawn onto Mania’s portraits give his subjects multiple narratives and possible histories. It seems he’s chosen Van Vechten as an inspiration for what he offers as a starting-point – a like-minded, striking aesthetic, both bold and elegant, in portraiture. While Mania pours his idiosyncrasies into his portraits to fill them with memories, Van Vechten shot his subjects at a time when few others – certainly few white male artists – seemed to be looking, thus providing the documents for history to develop from.