In the backstreets of Brunswick lies an artists’ lair – a warehouse shared by twenty creatives. Here I meet with Harley Manifold, a visual artist who has well and truly painted himself into Melbourne’s art scene.
A genuine gent, he pops a bottle of sparkling and shows me around the gallery space that he and his fellow artists share. These hung works are from his upcoming Infinity exhibition, and much of what I see is familiar. “This is Wellington Parade,” Harley confirms. “And that’s Spring Street” he says, and pointing to another “Flinders Street.” The artist excitedly bounds around, holding canvases alongside others, piecing together an urban jigsaw.
Evoking the romantic era of oils, Harley’s paintings transcend the infrastructure of our concrete sprawl. “For me,” he says, “art is all about intersecting dichotomies that blur in the meeting of each other.” He communicates this through composition – the contrast of light and dark, warm and cool, soft and rough. “This, to me at least, mimics life, and trying to find balance.” He then says, somewhat ominously. “Sometimes it is easier to balance a painting than to balance other things.”
What we perceive as beautiful and ugly is a recurring theme, with Harley casting light – quite literally through his skilled application – on obscure locations, overpasses and thoroughfares. “Most people drive through these and…” he turns up his nose, mimicking disgust. “I don’t see them the same way. I think that they are amazing theatrical sets that your imagination can fly into.”
And what is a set without the performers? “The thing with the city,” he tells me, “is that it’s built around people, it informs how people interact with the space.” People, their interactions and relationships, inspire this artist to do what he does. It is interesting then, that he chooses to hide his painted figures in cardboard boxes.
You may not see them at first, but in many works there’s a box or two lurking in a passageway, or perched on the side of a railway track, often with legs protruding. A small glow can be detected shining out from under the boxes in his latest works. “A little bit of illumination,” he tells me. They’re on their smart phone, as is the ever-growing case in real life. “Technology is a gift and a curse” he continues. “It’s is no more useful or useless than the person who is wielding it – depressing to some, and illuminating to others.” Harley explains that these newer paintings are about finding someone, “and doing it in the dark, with all this craziness going on.”
The craziness to which he refers was made very apparent when he travelled in Bali – a holiday that led to a series of paintings in this exhibition. Harley had gone to surf, but after injuring himself, started doing a few “touristy things.” He noticed that people were observing the sights through their camera phones. “They’d take a picture and then turn around,” he recalls, “without actually engaging with what they’d seen.”
And so, the concept of the cardboard box was sprung, and became a feature in his depictions of the striking Balinese landscape. As if on cue, a woman wanders into the gallery as we chat about these pieces. After circling the space, peering at his works, she charmingly joins our conversation. “So Bali is beautiful, yes?” she asks of Harley. “It is beautiful,” he responds. “It’s got a beautiful culture, but I think we’ve done a lot to change that culture.”
Returning from Bali, disillusioned by our cyber-obsession, Harley delivered his boxes to Melbourne, painting them into his city scenes. “I think it’s really pertinent to the facebook generation,” he says. “The majority of us – me included,” he hurriedly adds. “I’m taking a swipe at myself. We upload these photos of us having ‘all the fun’ and forget what’s around us.” He goes on to tell me that aesthetically, the box itself is the perfect form to blend into the city. “Architects design places for people,” he explains, “but the allowances we give them are box shaped.”
People have developed differing theories on Harley’s boxes. One gallery visitor had said how much she loved them, having played in boxes as a child. “For me it’s highly metaphorical,” says Harley. “But I like that I don’t have to tell people these things.” So it doesn’t annoy you when people get it totally wrong? “No! I love it!” he responds, telling me a story about a little old lady who was convinced a back flipping figure in one of his earlier works was committing suicide. Not deterred, she purchased the piece. “People put their own stories into it,” Harley says. “Painting is my way of telling stories, albeit cryptically, with open ended metaphors that let anyone create their own.” He pauses. “Or maybe it’s just that my stories are not very different from everybody else’s.”
Harley tells me straight out that art is a self-centred pursuit – “most of my pieces are self portraits.” He admits that at times it’s excruciating to look at his paintings for this very reason. “I think struggle is important for an artist but it can be overpowering.” We don’t see that though, I tell him, so you need to get over it. “I know,” he laughs, “the names of the works themselves are usually hints or tips for people if they want to work it out. Some do, some don’t, but I don’t mind that at all.”
The sensitive chap with obvious talent was surely born to paint, but I have to ask; did you always know that this is what you wanted to do? “God no,” he says, mockingly aghast, before revealing that he wanted to be an air force pilot. “It’s all I ever wanted to do.” He grew up flying, born on a farm in Camperdown, rural Victoria, and in his final years of school presented as a great candidate. Until an air force recruitment agent reminded him to get his eyes tested. “I nearly burst into tears,” Harley recalls. “I knew my eyesight wasn’t strong.”
But… you paint? “That’s the Greek comedy of it,” he says with great amusement. “I went on to be a visual artist! That’s a smart choice, right?” He then confides, “I think it really does affect the way I paint, for better or worse.” Regardless, his passion for the skies lives on in his work. “The flying thing is a visual thing,” he tells me. “When you are flying you see these amazing landscapes.” Mythology has also played a role in Harley’s work – his fascination with Icarus in particular born from his failure to be a pilot. In naming his exhibition Infinity, he references the circuitous nature of creating and striving to do better. “The repetitive nature of my Icarus-like attempts at life,” he says, “and the nature of being creative – you learn something new and look at an old painting and think shit.. I better fix that!”
“As an artist you’re not following the dominant discourse. You’re going about something one of the most difficult ways you can by trying to make money from something you create with your hands and your mind.”
And do you make enough money to survive? Harley occasionally takes photos at weddings to supplement his income, but for the most part yes, he has made painting his livelihood. “There’s been times when laybys have been paying my rent,” he says, “but I’m fortunate enough that I can survive, so why not push it as hard as I can and just keep going?” Were there moments when you regretted your decision? Moments when you’ve failed? “Yeah absolutely,” he assures me. “But I think that there’s beauty in the fall, and failure. I think people get so scared of failing that they just don’t even try to fly.” Looking at the works around me, I am not entirely convinced. So he insists “I’ll show you my studio and you’ll see that I’ve been trying to make a sculpture and it’s cost me $400 and I’ve got nothing except two wrecked carpets!”
Behind the gallery space is where the magic happens – with dormitory-style artist studios aligning the walls. I peek into a couple. There’s everything from pop art inspired collages to handmade leggings. Harley occupies one of the larger spaces. “This is the bombsite,” he says, leading me in. A current study of an inner-city street perches on an easel amidst a flurry of failed sculpture attempts. “Careful,” he warns. “There’s loose paint!” His haven has bedroom intimacy, but Harley is welcoming as ever, even offering a divine sniff of his linseed oil.
Many an hour has he spent in this studio. “I work a lot harder than people I know who make a lot more money than me,” he says. “But I think that the rewards for doing this are beyond anything else I’ve ever done.” And what are the rewards? I ask. He takes his time in answering this one, eventually saying, “I think it comes from growing up on the farm and making things with your hands – it feels like you are doing something useful.”
“Even though art can be completely not useful and completely self-centred, every now and then it gives back to people.” Harley’s artwork is featured in The Black Dog Project – an online space where art is used as a way to prompt communication from those suffering with depression. “It has benefits outside of myself,” he says. “I’m very fortunate that I can help.” And going forward, is the plan to just keep at it? Harley tells me he’ll be going ‘forwardish.’ “For me,” he explains, “my relationship with my art is like a relationship with a person. A difficult, passionate relationship with a person – it’s never dull.”
“It’s all consuming. I get so much love and so much hate from doing it, it tears me apart and brings me together.” Again shifting from heartfelt revelation to light hearted quip, Harley reminds me that the important thing is to keep your sense of humour. “There is a sense of humour, if only sometimes fatal or dark about the works. If you can’t have a bit of fun and laugh at life – what else is there?” To that I raise my well-drained champagne flute.