Not all artists can afford a traditional, daily studio practice. For some, the studio is a state of mind entered into on the drive home after a long day packed with professional obligations. These artists make exceptional work while maintaining an alternate identity – be it teacher, parent, janitor, or doctor. For Michael Mansfield, that identity is Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Ogunquit Museum of American Art.
Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to view Mansfield’s personal artwork – a series of small, intricate video pieces cleanly framed in white and hung on the wall. At first glance, one of the pieces appears to be looped, hand-drawn footage of a hummingbird, its underside exposed to the camera. In another work, a flock of birds fly in and out of a cluster of reeds. Their movement is hypnotic.
I sat down with Mansfield to discuss his work, his remarkable career history (which includes rebuilding Nam June Paik robots and hacking theme park software to run the technology behind the Smithsonian Museum of American Art), as well as his vision for the Ogunquit Museum. This is an excerpt from that interview, focused on Mansfield’s work as an artist. The full interview will appear in the July issue of The Bollard.
Were there any pivotal moments that pointed you toward the arts as a potential career path or passion?
I studied architecture and art history in my first year as an undergrad and quickly realized that the engineering side of architecture was less interesting to me. I was more interested in its visual presentation, mostly through photography, so I chose to study photography. Prior to that, I really didn’t have any exposure to art. I grew up in East Texas. Other than looking at occasional magazines with black-and-white photographs, I didn’t have any access to visual storytelling.
Did travel inform your way of being?
Yes. There is a great tradition in Texas of environmental photography and street photography, Gary Winogrand and George Krause. I was encouraged by the professors I had at the University of Houston to go out in the world with a camera, make images and bring them back to see if they worked. I received grants to travel domestically and abroad to make photographs. I also had a number of paying jobs to do editorial work, which made me better at composing an image. I was working in color photography and black-and-white photography and digital photography and then eventually in video and filmmaking all at once, so I made a pretty wide mess of work.
Were you showing that work?
I was. I had a number of little published projects. I was showing the work in galleries, little student-run spaces, and small community spaces.
Primarily that was street photography and landscape photography?
Yes. I was really focused on the changing nature of street photography, and just having a camera and being a part of something.
How did you move from street photography to your most recent body of work?
The program I was in for undergrad was photography and digital media. It was the first program of its kind, in the ‘90s, at the college level, that combined traditional photography and digital media. Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom, who ran it, were a collaborative called MANUAL. They produced a lot of work that married traditional and digital media and, as students, we had access to some pretty high-tech equipment. I began looking at digital images and how they were composed for computers using Photoshop and layers, and when I left college, that didn’t leave me. I kept working with it. I began working with desktop-publishing video programs. I was making films and then scanning them in and editing them digitally and I was also taking photographs and animating them through the same editing process.
I realize you can’t break apart the technical from the conceptual, but that all sounds very technical.
It was more about trying to find a way to extend an image in time. The photograph was a finite moment. Working photographically, I was often looking at contact sheets. I would shoot 50 rolls of film and produce 50 contact sheets and then see those images in sequence and see how an event unfolded over time. I realized that there were really beautiful limitations to that single image I was trying to create, and once I arrived at that composition, I wanted to expand the image into time. It was a single photograph, but I wanted it to exist for a bit longer. I was really into the persistence of an image, or how one thing stays in your mind for a period of time, and how that informs your association with that object or that event, even though it’s only recognized as 1/25th of a second, or less. Taking that single instance, and then blowing it up and being able to examine it from multiple angles, seeing how I might elaborate on my understanding of what that image was. The work that I produce now is often created from parts of smaller images. It is very technical but my reasoning behind it is much more conceptual. The technology allows me to make the work. It enables me to extend that moment of a single image into something much longer.
Were there any specific concepts or questions you were pursuing that have found their way into your curatorial efforts?
Yes. I’ve always been interested in the artist’s relationship to their material and how that material provides both insight into the contemporary moment, and is also a testament to human ingenuity and creativity, that we can receive a bit of technology that was created for one purpose and then imagine something new from it. Artists have always engaged the latest technologies that are available to them – as painters and sculptors and artists working with more traditional media as equally as artists working with more contemporary media. The role that industry and technology and commerce played in early American modernism can be easily identified in the work you see from that period just by the composition. It is enlightening about what the moment really meant, both to them, then, and to us, now. In the work I’m making, I am seeing the same approach to technology resulting in works that open our eyes to something new, just as was happening 150 years ago.
You’re primarily using technology to focus, visually, on nature, which is interesting.
It’s true. I was working in an urban environment a lot, and I always found inspiration in the landscape. I suppose it’s not unlike artists who left the cities and urban areas in the 1880’s. I was encountering the wilderness in a different way and trying to find what that meant. I would take a single image of a rare bird in New Zealand, or in Utah, and then create a world around that single image so I could expand my one experience with that bird. I have a photograph of a North American Red-Headed Blackbird that I took just outside of Ogden, Utah, with a field of reeds in the background. I had a single instance of that bird, but it was not complete, he was hidden behind the reeds. I couldn’t really see him, so I did quite a bit of research into Red-Headed Blackbirds and images of Red-Headed Blackbirds. Then, I constructed him from information I was able to find online, digitally, and embedded him into an image that I could then expand in time into a virtual world. I could recreate his existence and allow him to live a fuller life, something more meaningful that would last longer and be more consequential than just a single photograph.
Does your experience as an artist impact your work as a curator and museum director?
I hope it does. I like to think that my experience as an artist makes me more sensitive to the struggles artists go through, especially when I’m in a position to support their work. I know how hard it is to carve out a living as an artist and how much sacrifice and determination and willpower and luck it requires. I hope this informs my conversations with artists. I hope it makes me a better listener and a better champion for the work they’re doing.
What about exhibition design?
I rely quite a bit on my experience as an artist. Helping an artist realize their vision in space within the confines of the gallery is not an easy task and the work that an artist is doing in the studio doesn’t always translate to a gallery space very simply.
You stopped showing your work in 2009 to avoid conflicts within your professional career. To me, that carries a hint of tragedy, but I can see the upside if this decision resulted in a kind of openness to explore concepts and make work without the pressure of the public eye.
It’s true. I have to admit that in one sense, it’s a huge relief that I’m not under the same scrutiny as an artist, that I’m not at risk in the same way as an artist. I’m able to let go of that work, and I don’t have to take the risk of putting it in front of people. I like the privacy this affords me. I get to work out of the spotlight without any of the competition or conflicts or consequence of rejection. But, what I miss the most is the feedback … making work and having a conversation about it. The discourse around what’s important, what’s meaningful, and relevant.