Manju Shandler has moxy for un-branding. Incisive and diverse, her mixed media paintings, drawings, and sculptures are all layered with imaginative narratives which depart from her personal experience as a woman artist into contemporary socio-political terrains. Shandler shares with Art Spiel what brought her from theater and performance to painting and sculptural installations, her process of art making, and some of her current studio work.
AS: Tell me a bit what brought you to art.
Manju Shandler: I grew up primarily in Amherst, Massachusetts. As a child I was always making things, drawing and painting, and from a young age my parents encouraged my wild inclinations. They are out of the box thinkers, writers, and culture makers who met at an ashram in California in 1970.
I began Bennington College with the assumption that I would study art, but when I was choosing my first classes, one stood out immediately: Imagination for the Stage. The Professor for this class, Danny Michaelson, opened up the whole world of theatre to me. Danny passed away this winter and I miss him terribly. The Bennington College theatre department in the 1990’s was an extremely vibrant place and I loved designing and building costumes, masks, and puppets for dozens of productions during my time there.
Upon graduation I moved to New York City and was introduced to the costume construction industry. I had some moxy and talent, and I was soon building puppets, walk around costumes, and other odd things all over the city. The professional highlight of these years was joining a small crew of artists and craftspeople that developed the original puppets and masks for the Lion King on Broadway. It was incredible to work with Julie Taymor and Michael Curry, who were two of my idols.
Those were years of working intensely in theatre and children’s television. I loved working with a crew, problem solving to create new pieces, and learning to manipulate and build with so many different materials. Between working on bigger budget productions to pay the bills, I would design my own performances using puppets. But over time it became clear to me that the ephemeral nature of a live performance is always the sum of the parts. While I love collaborating, I began to crave being able to explore my own creative voice, free of the hierarchy and infrastructure of a stage, cast, and crew.
AS: Tell me a bit more about your experience in theater design and how it informs your other art making.
Manju Shandler: What I have taken from my years working in theatre is still true: I am telling visual stories, reflecting on the social and political climate, responding to text, doing research, using multiple materials, problem solving and trying to create an arresting moment that transports the viewer. I also tend to approach each series with fresh eyes and a new approach, sometimes making it harder to recognize my “brand”. That also might come from working in theatre, where each project is new and the visual language is constantly being reinvented. Working in theatre has given me a very comprehensive training in using a huge array of materials and an intuitive sense of how to build things and push boundaries with materials.
AS: Tell me about “Gesture,” your memorial installation comprised of almost 3000 individual paintings, one for each person lost on September 11th, that exhibited at the National September 11th Memorial Museum
Manju Shandler: On September 11, 2001 I was walking my dog when I heard that a plane had hit the towers about a mile from my home. When I returned to my studio a few days later, I put aside what I had been working on and started obsessively drawing the events of September 11th on small scraps of paper. I needed to respond to the horror.
As I listened to the news on the radio, I imagined an installation with one small drawing for each person who died that day. At that point we had no idea how many people had been lost; they were saying perhaps 6,000. I quickly made about 100 small rough paintings with acrylics on paper and tacked them to the wall in a grid. They were pretty terrible, but I had a vision of something I wanted to make. I threw out the original pieces and started working on a thin transparent plastic cut to 4 x 9 inches. I marked this material with grease pencil, acrylic and spray paint. I developed a shorthand for a person in the form of a lower-case “i”, each quick mark symbolizing the head and the body. I developed a rough print-making method and combed printed media for imagery of the events. Over time I began to see something taking shape and I divided them into 5 basics color categories: white, black, red, pink, and yellow.
“Gesture”, the resulting installation, took about 3 years to complete. With one painting for each person lost that day, it is an installation of almost 3,000 paintings. It was a tremendous honor to share “Gesture” at The National September 11th Memorial and Museum in the exhibition “Rendering the Unthinkable: Artists Respond to 9/11,” which marked the 15thanniversary of the tragedy by sharing work from 13 New York City based artists who made work about 9/11, and was on view at the museum for over a year.
AS: You work in mixed media both 2-d and 3-d. Let’s look at your earlier 2-d works first. I am curious about “Paradise” from 2010. What can you share about this body of work?
Manju Shandler: From 2008 to 2011 I was part of a small group of artists who developed LABA, a Jewish artist think tank based in a vibrant community center in Manhattan’s East Village. Each year there was a theme of study and in 2010 our theme was Paradise. I was attracted to learning about Judaism in this most liberal of environments because while I’ve always had a strong Jewish identity, I was raised with more of a spiritual awareness than a religious one.
The first large painting from this series, A Hair’s Breadth, was composed in June 2010. In this piece I was reflecting on the thinness of earth’s life sustaining layer and the density of humanity’s infrastructure. At that moment the Gulf Coast oil spill was pouring forth millions of gallons of oil daily without a solution in sight, Haiti was recovering from a devastating earthquake, and the “Peace Flotilla” conjured nothing but war and hate in Israel. And yet life continued. People go to the beach, children go to school, horses graze in green pastures, and people ride bikes – this beautiful complicated paradise on earth continues.
AS: In “Tsunami” & “Leviathans” your imagery fused Japanese flood photojournalism, Renaissance masterpieces, and 18thCentury etching of whaling. What can you share about this project?
Manju Shandler: In 2011 I was coming out of my time studying at LABA and thinking about the concepts of Paradise. This series came together in the aftermath of that study. It was a time of deep thinking about the environment, man’s destructivity, and how we create myths and religious stories to try to make sense of the brutality of nature. I had a lot of ideas swirling around and these chaotic paintings were a way of responding.
TSUNAMI 1 & 2 are large narrative paintings created in response to the Japanese tsunami and the resulting nuclear disaster. The imagery was created by using a mash up of Japanese flood photojournalism juxtaposed with renaissance masterpieces.
In the series LEVIATHANS I began using the history of whaling as a type of mythical cautionary tale. Whaling was the first global super fuel, it spurred an international economy, promoting growth while depleting natural resources. It is a basic story of humanity’s unquenchable thirst for fuel and one that parallels current fossil-based energy consumption. I started appropriating 18th century etchings of whaling into my work as a way of incorporating history and first-hand witnesses of that time layered with scenes of contemporary life.
AS: And “Spontaneous Texts” relates to 16thCentury Dutch etchings. What brought you there and what was your approach?
Manju Shandler: “Spontaneous Texts” was a series that evolved from my fascination with the imagery and texture of Dutch etchings. By isolating the characters in the background of larger tableaus I have been enjoying giving these auxiliary characters focus, often in a lighter and more humorous way. I have been incorporating what I call “Thought Bubbles” into this work. These are quick scribbles with grease pencil on spray painted polyester film that are sewn to the paper. It’s a way of indicating that the characters have something to say, without saying what exactly that is. I enjoyed all the properties of working on paper again and allowing myself to be a bit more carefree in this series.
AS: In your 2018 series like “The Big Bad Wolf Ate Betsy Ross’s Ghost” you come up with a more overt socio-political entry point. What is your take on the relationship between art and politics?
Manju Shandler: My work has been quite political and focused on responding to current events since “Gesture”. After the 2016 election I became completely consumed by the horrors of our current president’s actions. I feel strongly that is our job as artists and culture makers to address the injustices in the world even if we have no solid answers.
“The Big Bad Wolf Ate Betsy Ross’s Ghostwas” is an installation in a Bushwick store- front hosted by ABC No Rio in Exile. This venue felt like a place to reach back to my performative roots and create something big and visible from the street. It features a ghostly winged deity dressed in the faded stars and stripes of a historical character, masked as a wolf. This figure embodies two mythical creatures: The Big Bad Wolf and Betsy Ross. The Big Bad Wolf is the most common and simplistic of bad guys. In this scene he has eaten Betsy Ross, a seemingly ordinary woman of her time who has been canonized in American history for sewing the first American Flag, in a way she is the first American ingenue. In this era of #MeToo, we can substitute the Big Bad Wolf for any number of influential men of political power. Here Betsy’s Ghost is claiming her iconic status by stealing her predator’s mask and channeling their combined power in the fictional plane.
AS: Your work invited the viewer to project multiple narratives into the work. How do you see the role of narrative in your work?
Manju Shandler: I believe that humans have a natural instinct to tell stories as a way of passing on information and making sense of the world. I consider myself a visual storyteller. I am hoping to make work that is accessible and triggers multiple reactions, creating a subconscious dialogue between myself and those who view my work. This type of narrative structure, gently asking the viewer to layer their own response onto my work, comes from creating performances where communication is everything.
AS: Let’s take a look at your 3-d work, like “Sleeping Eagles” from 2018. What is the genesis and process behind that series?
Manju Shandler: “Sleeping Eagles” is a series of sculptures that continues the exploration of patriotic symbols and what they mean in this political climate. The fable of nationalism is embodied in the form of these sleeping female eagles. Their decorative, vessel-like bodies are surrounded by net and armor, mixing the vulnerable with the fierce. Raptors are usually thought of as hunters, alert and masculine. These eagles are caught napping, their power apparent, but also inactive. Female Eagles are the larger of the two sexes, with a larger wing-span, and up to twice as heavy. They have a far larger capacity to seize a target. In this moment of female empowerment, as we are awakening, what goals will the sleeping eagles rise and focus on?
AS: What projects are you working on now?
Manju Shandler: This summer I will have six pieces in exhibition Waterworks at The Long Beach Island Foundation and my work is represented on Artsy.com by Gagne Contemporary. Upcoming in September, I am in development with two venues to show installations of my new figurative sculpture, I am working on curating a group show in Dumbo, and a university gallery has asked to exhibit “Gesture”.
Currently in my studio I am continuing to mine the female form and the political battle ground that is being fought as Roe vs Wade is being challenged. To quote the notorious Ruth Bader Ginsburg,“The decision whether or not to bear children is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity. It is a decision she must make for herself. When Government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.” Becoming a mother has been the single most important decision in my life. It is essential for all women to have control over their own reproduction. People who wish to limit access to safe and effective birth control are limiting women’s rights by ensnaring them in the prison of motherhood. The hanger is a symbol for dangerous illegal abortions, and I am illustrating the bondage created by unwanted pregnancies and motherhood by using this symbol.
Making artwork that directly addresses women’s role in today’s society, I am aware that I speak from my own experiences. For this reason, my current work exploring identity and women’s rights uses figures based on my own likeness rather than substituting a generalized female form to make sweeping proclamations. In my solidarity with other women I do not want to assume that I speak for them.