Shrinking Rooms, Expanding Boundaries


Jason Manley’s ‘Shrinking Room’ exhibit at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Arts in Salt Lake City, Utah on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017. (Dr. Rishi Deka | Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Madge Slack

Let’s face it, there are a few things all art majors are sick of hearing. Some stereotypes need to be dispelled. These are common phrases, such as “poor starving artist” and questions, like “yes, but what are you going to do with that?” They are less than helpful in a career field that has no shortage of uncertainty. Whether you are a visual or performance artist, you have likely grown tired of hearing these things. However, we are artists. We live to create narratives, so let’s start a new one.

There are plenty of successful working artists in the world. In fact, there are many in Utah. They do not rely on their parents or any sort of bread winner significant other to provide for them, but they are able to feed and clothe themselves as professional artists.

Jason Manley, a local artist currently in residence at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art and head of the sculpture department at Weber State University, is one such artist. He was first drawn to art because of “the unlimited possibilities of the unknown.” He loved art throughout his childhood, but said, “Nobody ever told me I could be a professional artist.” He is quite the professional, however, with an expansive resume. Previous credits include solo exhibitions at the Museum of Public Fiction in Los Angeles as well as the Valerie Lambert Gallery in Brussels. He has even been in Salt Lake City in solo exhibitions at CUAC. Manley treats each exhibition in each new gallery as unique.

“The experience of space and place are always at the forefront of my thinking when approaching an installation,” he said.

His new exhibition, which opened on Aug. 25, is no different.

“In the UMOCA show, I thought about how the sculpture would be experienced on first sight of entering the back gallery space and then as you move around it,” Manley said.

Manley is a sculptor. He said “the great thing about sculpture is that anything can be a medium.” “Shrinking Room” is an example of this. It’s a giant slice of pie made out of pallet board and carved with Manley’s remembered dreams. The piece is designed to be interactive, and “you experience sculpture by walking around it.” You can also walk inside the piece.

Manley’s work often focuses on socio-political issues. “Shrinking Room” was inspired by a poll showing that 7 percent of the nation’s wealth is owned by 80 percent of the population, meaning that 20 percent of the people own almost all the wealth. The piece exhibits this isolation physically by creating a space that only a few can stand in at a time. However, in order to read Manley’s words carved into the piece, you have to stand inside it.

“I find that capitalism as a culture does not generally address the quality of how we experience the places we live and inhabit on a daily basis,” Manley said.

Manley also likes to challenge the need for functionalism. He believes that things like city signs and structures should be more than just functional, but poetic. He hopes at some point “Shrinking Room” might become an outdoor exhibit.

This is not Manley’s first artist in residence experience, though for him it has been an overwhelmingly positive one. He has also been an artist in residence at Skowhegan School of Art, the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art and Illinois State University. Considering he graduated with a Master’s of Fine Arts from the University of Arizona, he is rather well traveled. However, he said that UMOCA’s artist in residence program is unique. Normally, the artists come from all over the world and work in separate studios away from the museums they will be exhibiting in. UMOCA’s program puts the artists in studios below the museum, and that puts them in close proximity to both each other and the current exhibits. Manley enjoys being right below the museum, and he was inspired by the shape of his in-house studio.

In this installation, Manley plays with bronze casting. He takes disposable everyday items that are thrown away and makes them permanent. One piece was a box constructed of a bronze letter with “Sea” cast on top. It came about in one of his “more romantic moods” with the concept of the vast sea being put into a little box.

“Shrinking Room” itself was inspired by a quote, “No ideas but in things,” which is also from a poem by William Carlos Williams.

“It is a simple phrase that relates to how I am approaching mixing forms with words and conveying language as a thing,” Manley said.

As a professor, Manley finds that his students and his art are equal parts of his life. The one reflects the other. He takes pictures at shows he attends in order to show them to his students. He tends to work with the techniques and tools he is currently teaching. For example, “Shrinking Room” was created with a CNC router, or type router as Manley refers to it, which is a tool he is teaching at Weber. To his students and all young artists, he said, “Try to learn something from everything you make, whether about yourself or the world.”

For now, Manley gets a brief respite as his exhibit is on display. “Shrinking Room” is a thought provoking exhibit in good company with some other wonderful works. Go check it out and never fear: being a successful artist can be done.

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