Rob Mango "A Retrospective" curated by Robert Curcio at Elga Wimmer Gallery, New York, November 6-29, 2014

The dozen works which comprise the retrospective of Rob Mango each in their own way represent a watershed event in the artist’s development or life experiences that he unknowingly shared with others. If the artist is the representative idealist for our time, believing in ideas and manifesting expressions that are purer and more primal than the product of any other industry or milieu, then Rob Mango is one of the best versions of such a figure. His work is emboldened by the idealism associated with formalism, its relevant social conscience, and a measure of idiosyncrasy, all without equal. Each of the works on view has a specific story to tell.

The Superman Theory (1984-88), is both a cabinet of curiosities and a hall of heroes. It occurs quite early in Mango’s artistic career, shortly after he first moved to New York, a period when he was momentarily breaking with the realistic painting that was his known métier in order to allow himself to be influenced by an alternative set of esthetic parameters: to create objects instead of images. This is a most radical move for someone who actively identifies as a realistic painter, in that it operates as a functional object, a system of drawn icons, anchored by an abstract totem in the middle. It opens and closes, has interior illumination, a classification of heroic depictions, and the belief that truth can emerge from a morass of agendas. The hero-worshipper in Mango could not reasonably divorce himself from the figures who preceded him. To create a closet of sorts he has to fill it with something and if memories would not do, then heroes were the next best step he could make to reveal himself without making the plain facts known, but instead to present the varied opaque figures who had influenced him individually and en masse, each one contributing to the person he was. 

Amiss in the Abyss (1989) presents the very first manifestation of a figure that was to loom large in Mango’s personal mythology: The Jester. Born out of the bleakness of Medieval European life, the Jester is the origin of today’s circus clown, though his function serves more than mere comedy. It relates to a perverse view not only of everyday life but also of the authority of kings and princes. The Jester wore a crown and carried a scepter, placing him in the role of ruler or wizard, an authority over frivolity and distraction. Yet the Jester was also used to mock authority to its face, and many of them were employed by courts of kings to provide a sly commentary on the issues of the day, even going so far as to criticize the ruler to his or her face, which was in some cases encouraged and welcomed despite the outcome. In Mango’s work the Jester is a totem for the possibilities of inspiration, a madcap reactionary who is also an artist—painting directly out of their soul onto the very fabric of reality. In this work the Jester carries a paintbrush, and its antics are depicted as if it were a dance. All around the Jester is the veil of existence, a void of darkness behind it, and the colors it paints lighting up the road ahead. This jester is Mango’s foil and the void is his soul.

Self Portrait with Swans (1992-93) is a further manifestation of spiritual reality, a scene that emerges out of the fantasy that is Venice, with regal homes supported over canals that are populated with graceful swans. They are a spectacle of effervescent beauty stared at by a masked figure who may be Mango himself, or the entire painting may be intended as the Self Portrait, a dynamic of introspection and absorption with the sources of inspiration, real and mythological, that such a place can impart to the passive mind. The face that looks out from the middle section as if out of a dream looks curious, malevolent, and masked it evokes a Commedia della Arte dramatic persona, not exactly a person. A dreamy and intense image this still feels like a mental footnote among images dedicated to larger themes. 

Krishna Passing the Wheel of Fortune on the River Ganges (1993) presents a vague and complicated symbol that is an admixture of questions about spirituality; the nature of existence; and the connection between belief, culture, nature, and locale. It reads as a mental game the artist is playing to drive questions to the surface rather than to merely present a demonstratively oblique scenario, though there is that too. From what I have read about the legends surrounding Krishna, he is identified either as a divine figure or as the messenger or servant of one, and there is a lot of commentary (read:doubt) as to the veracity of his existence, except that in various cases Krishna serves the purpose of combining various historical myths and their related agendas. The purity of a symbol and the complexity of its authoritative reception over time are two contexts that attract Mango. The painting itself, which depicts the person of Krishna standing at the base of a raft that also supports a Wheel of Fortune, which in the nomenclature of Tarot, represents the intercession of random chance into the Fool's path (the Fool being all that is human). Atop the wheel, as if waiting en masse at the edge of the Ganges, is a mass of men, or spirits of men, mulling in mindlessness, looking on but only spectators of the scene before them. They are perhaps all the others, those who are not the artist, who autobiographically casts himself as the Warrior/God/Messenger/Fool. The complete symbol that the painting suggests is oblique and loaded, and is left up to the ages to be interpreted or fulfilled.

Strong Jester (2003) was the last known version of the jester that looms large within the known pantheon of Mango’s preferred symbols. He paints him as a modern strong man, a stern countenance matched by his rippling muscles and the heroic stance he takes with his paint brushes, coloring a roll of cloth to match the rainbow of his crown, as if illustrating the dimension from which he first emerged, and the world he must inhabit to remain a potent presence: celebrating joy while challenging authority. He shows how he has grown strong, with the power to survive oblivion.

Burial at Sea (2004) is a symbol for emotional closure in dealing with the tragedy of 911 and the many deaths, the suffering of multitudes, and the chaotic transformation of his home and neighborhood into a burnt offering for the clash between cultures. The painting depicts the whole city seen from the perspective of Lower Manhattan, of which Tribeca is a part, and what is specifically narrated is the mass floatation of carriers filled with innumerable dead, offered up in the spirit of the moment by King Tut, a boy king who lived and became legend, like many of the people who died on 911. Mango depicts his huge form, his face frozen in a mask of mourning, his bronze body glowing like gold and he lays mass coffins into the New York harbor to be towed away by the Staten Island Ferry. The Hudson River flows down to the harbor in long graceful currents that immediately become chaotic eddies, wakes from boats, and mini maelstroms all vying to carry the vessels away into the netherworld. The city behind Tut compresses all the major skyscraper monuments that seem to blow like wheat in the wind, bowing in honor to this final event. 
No Room For Doubt (2012) this very recent work by Mango is considerably simpler in overt subject matter: a female body, depicted in the nude, yet abstractly realized. It’s necessary to look beyond the simplicity of the subject, which is not just woman’s body, but also the artistic process of perceiving and realizing its representation in a mode other than straight depiction. The title of the work has to do with the formal structuring of the work mingled with his stated dedication to a subject which has proven divisive among different viewers of his work. The depiction of women as objects, specifically as morphed and manipulated forms, has generated some criticism of an unwelcome nature. Yet for Mango he considers it a return to dedicating himself not only to a matter of form, to art historical eras and figures such as Pablo Picasso and Willem De Kooning, whose work informed his own, and in adding to the sum total of what he can create. Yet I feel that Mango goes beyond all these things. He creates a contemporary manifestation about an idealized subject, adds a contemporary form and materials, and in the end the theme is not only the subject, but the attitude to which the work itself contributes. It becomes a form of self-affirmation. Since this work he has created many other versions that have yet to be seen. 

Woman in High Backed Chair (2014) was painted a full two years after “No Room For Doubt” and it presents us with a version of the same process but an example in which the artist is more comfortable with his subject, and can say as much with the background as he can with the figure and its composition. The thick color of the background matches the seeming heaviness of his materials, which are in fact the exact opposite, and the woman in question, who sits with legs crossed and her head resting on one shoulder, contemplating a subject known only to her. Mango takes nothing away from the woman as a figure because he invests her with an interior life which we cannot doubt. Her beauty is a combination of body, soul, and the world that swirls around her, making a locus of intense personal energies.

Samraat Running Free (2014) is painted in a similar but much more idealized form, a paean to the purity of athleticism, a love for the domesticated or trained animal that despite the specificity of its training and the end to which purpose it is directed, can yet be appreciated in both intimate and grandiose terms; a type of idealized competition that takes much of the ego out of the game. A horse runs races. There is something very noble and yet primal about this, something envious and appreciable, even to someone as tyro as Mango himself. He can project himself, as a runner, upon the form of the horse, and appreciate the duty and challenge it faces. It is merely being trained to do something its body is made to do, but do it in an extremely efficient and dynamic fashion. It doesn’t take much to find ourselves on equal ground with Mango’s appreciation for Samraat. The role of the horse in contemporary sport is timeless and yet also unique. Far back in history, horses were a part of many aspects of daily time. They were used to pull the plow in farming, the carriage or rider in the street or road, and they were used in competitive sports such as racing and polo, some of which date back to the origin of the Olympics in Classical Greece. Man’s relationship to nature was defined almost solely by his use and love of horses which, among all the animals of the farm, most embody strength, intelligence, and emotional response to their environment. His painting is not only a depiction of a champion but also his wish that Samraat can earn his due, to run free, happy and natural in the world that was made for him.

While some may view the consistent manifestation of symbols in ROB MANGO: A RETROSPECTIVE as a form of idealistic expression, and as a way of avoiding a personal statement, it is perhaps indulgent to expect an artist to make mere declarations of his works. Mango needs to create his own versions of the symbols that populate them, making them idiosyncratic, and allowing the world to peer into his reality. If the view they provide is ambiguous or complex, then that is the struggle of the viewer. Mango leaves it up to them to make of it what they will.