Everyone is a product of their environment. But it is often not until that environment is presented in an artistic form that the public can begin to understand the forces at work. Why? Because when our environment is presented as an external form through art, we are removed from it – only then can we really see and interpret the place which shapes us. The Group of Seven are the best known Canadian artists for capturing the sense (spirit) of place.

Common/Opposites, an exhibition of new ceramic work by artist Les Manning, is an excellent example of how contemporary artists are attempting to capture a sense of place. It is an exciting body of work which takes a subject that has received little attention historically – the Canadian prairie – and presents it in a way that demands reflection and interpretation. Manning offers an excellent opportunity to step outside the environment and hold it in our hands, thus providing the best vantage point to begin understanding the complex forces of place at work.

This exhibition represents the third phase of the evolution of this talented artist. Growing in Alberta, Manning’s early work was influenced by the surrounding cowboy culture. Then, upon his move to Banff and the Canadian Rockies in the mid-1970s, his work became influenced by the colour, shapes, texture and strata of rock formations which served as inspiration for a body of work which lasted nearly thirty years.

In 2000, Manning moved to Medicine Hat, Alberta on the Canadian prairie. Common/Opposites represents a significant shift in style and technique from his previous body of work and coincides with this move. The new pieces are sculptural instead of wheel-thrown vessels with some having delicate, almost precarious foundations and a subtle presentation of negative space.

Manning’s piece Carnival showcases this idea with three separate pieces. The base balances on its perch, creating significant negative space underneath. On top, two pieces are placed side by side with a cleft between them. The subtle space between the pieces has as much meaning as the physical object and is a commentary on the prairie landscape. The prairie landscape is dominated by what’s not there (i.e. the sky). In a similar way, Manning’s new work is able to draw attention to the negative space surrounding (and within) the piece.

The prairie influence is there in an abstract form. The lines of this new work are purposeful and simplified. The prairie is a place of simple and subtle – landforms, fields, fences and buildings. Even the horizon is most often just a simple straight line. When people talk about the prairie landscape, it’s usually in terms of three elements – land, horizon line and sky. Manning has successfully captured this idea in these intimate works. Each piece is grounded by a subtle horizontal line which the artist uses as a podium for the other abstract elements which combine to create positive and negative space. It is these subtle spaces that are meant to engage the viewer’s imagination to understand the shape and subtleties that are the Canadian Prairie.

Manning’s new work also makes excellent use of light, another key element of the prairies. In one piece in particular, Red River/Pink Plateau, a pink ceramic, olive-shaped form sits atop a dark, sculpted form. The top form reflects the edge of the piece below it, creating an image of a subdued, intriguing landscape on a distant horizon. This reflection creates an effect which may be tied to misinterpretation of distance. We know that the reflection is reflecting an object merely inches away but the reflection itself feels like it may be miles in the distance – another element of the prairies.

Manning has taken a quantum leap from the romantic provincial prairie art which has dominated this genre in Canadian art for over 100 years. The contemporary sense of place is extremely difficult to communicate in art. Manning’s new work is not straightforward and challenges the viewer to see beyond the literal to the experiential and spiritual elements of, in this case, the prairie landscape. And isn’t this what art should do?

This article originally appeared in Galleries West Magazine, August 2011