Mark Mann is a surveyor of “Americanism.”
The fabled American Dream was long ago relabeled a myth. And yet, it continues to be pulled by two opposing forces: a myopic nostalgia versus an angry, factual calibration of realities. In his images, Mann navigates the surrealism of the banal to peek behind the curtain of the past, and to come to terms with the present.
The artist’s new exhibition Souvenir serves as an overview of Mann’s various bodies of work over the last two decades. While they vary in media, they are all aspects of a larger, shared narrative. The earliest works are digital photo-collages, based on found Mid-Century postcards of holiday travel and resorts. These parks, motor lodges, diners and rest spots herald a bygone era when the country was more self-satisfied. In manipulating and reorganizing the images, Mann inserts a quiet sense of discomfort, even dread. These are not happy places. We see rooms that are eerily silent, empty swimming pools, lonely figures hiding from the light, and from us.
In his paintings, Mark Mann zooms in on the figures themselves. No longer hiding from us, these Americans are on holiday, often lurking around the hotel pool. However, they are not relaxing, they are restless and sun burnt, bored and apathetic. Mann’s sculptural work focuses on the tchotchkes and knick-knacks that people often pickup along the vast highways and tourist traps: water pistols, lucky horseshoes, little souvenirs that are whimsically looked at once and then set aside. A number of small, collectible cacti are planted in reused containers, such as vintage coffee cans, Crisco tins, or cheap bowls and cups. All of the sculptures are made of plaster. They are bleach white, only the containers, the evidence of our desire to consume, retain any color, any life.
Myths lie at the heart of America: The myth that times past were simpler, better and more wholesome. The myth that America is by, for and about white people. The myth that we lead the world in truth, justice and honesty. These myths have become especially glaring in the shadow of the past year, when America seemed fundamentally unable to acknowledge the sanctity of non-white lives. The Covid Pandemic exploded the myth of American Exceptional-ism and our collective patriotism. And the events of January 6th exposed the fragility of our democracy itself. Mark Mann explores these attitudes with dark humor and quiet suspicion. There is a nuanced weight behind his seemingly superficial imagery. The work of Mark Mann is a mirror that acknowledges who we, really, are.