Not long ago I had the opportunity to visit the studio of Brooklyn-based painter JJ Manford just as he was finishing new work for his current solo show at John Davis Gallery, in Hudson, NY.

His most recent series dwells at that odd juncture between nineteenth-century Romanticism and twentieth-century psychedelia. For instance, Manford’s figurative, expressionistic, and polychromatic world strikes me at first glance as an amalgamation of William Blake and Yellow Submarine. (Maybe a bit of Picasso’s “Don Quixote” too, and something of an echo of Pollock’s early Jungian experiments, like “She-Wolf,” 1943.)


“Opiate Fauna”, 25 x 21, 2016

It may seem a dissonant combination, but the two movements–classical Romanticism on one hand and the hippy counterculture on the other–spring from a common source where utopian vision of harmony is aimed at that odd interstice between society and nature.

This nameless ideology, running like a thread through the lives of tortured, Germanic landscape painters and acid-heads alike, has roots in some of the most ancient mystical traditions–from the Upanishads to the Gnostic scriptures. It is also an ideology that will not fade away, resurfacing to remind us that we are not the masters of our world and that things are not what they seem.

Manford’s paintings confess an affinity for such ancient connections and a sense of wonderment in nature with both their imagery and suggestive titles like “Psychic Nomad” and “Super-Vision (Cat).”


“Psychic Nomad”, 30 x 24, 2016

The attenuated plants and trees that fill Manford’s atmospheric space like totemic wire sculptures share a manic energy with his cartoon caricatures of hatted travelers and his bestiary of cats, rabbits, horses, owls and bats.

The horror vacui everywhere, with every inch filled by tantalizingly symbolic linear forms and sometimes delicate layers of cray-pas, applied with the most measured touch, over the saturated skins of alizarin and phthalo blue.


“Super-Vision (Cat)”

An interest in altered consciousness is here too.

Manford’s “A Peaceable Kingdom” attempts to encapsulate all of the sky, the earth, and the bellow into a single cross section. This hyper-dimensional envisioning leads me to think that driving the narrative in these paintings, whatever they are, is an interest in the nature of seeing itself.

In “A Peaceable Kingdom” especially I feel I may be seeing through some non-human mind, either a very old tree or an earthworm.


“A Peaceable Kingdom” 50″ x 38″

Having watched Manford’s work develop since his completion of an MFA at Hunter College, I see a number of changes in his forms and materials. The earlier works shifted between abstract, Max Ernst-ian botanicals and nods to historical eccentrics, including the reclusive Albert Pinkham Ryder, for one, and Samuel Palmer, whose archaistic movement, “The Ancients,” was based in William Blake’s philosophy.

These newer works have brought out a more hermetic narrative and a serial painting practice, similar to that of Peter Doig, where a composition is repeated a number of times with variations of color and paint application. Manford’s paint application has also become thinner and his color more luminous, likely the result of recent studies being made on the slick, nonabsorbent surface of Yupo paper.

There are many other elements in Manford’s work that I respond to, but the fullness of them, the overabundance of ideas and visual references, make them fun to return repeatedly. I feel he is contemplating a little of everything and the whole map of where his mind has gone is buried in the work somewhere.

As much as they are pretty pictures, they are also enticing puzzles to unravel. (Alessandro Keegan)


“Emergency Exit Wanderer”, 25 x 21

JJ Manford’s “Wanderers and Wildflowers: New Paintings” will be at John Davis Gallery (362 1/2 Warren Street, Hudson, New York 12534) until September 12, 2016.


“Twilight Wanderer”, 30×24


“Riding After Midnight”, 25 x 21.5


“Wooden Owl”, 30×24