I first met Manon Cleary's artwork sometime around 1993 or 1994. It was at an exhibition at Addison Ripley's old space behind the Phillips Collection. Back then there were several galleries in that space and I was making the rounds for some art magazine long since gone, and literally walked into the show without knowing anything about Manon Cleary.
I was hypnotized by what I saw. It was clear to the most casual observer that here was an artist who not only had the most enviable set of technical skills that I had ever seen, but also an equally enviable ability to grab a slice of energy out of her subject matter and deposit it into the artwork itself.
I was so envious of this belligerent dual skill, so powerfully individual in a DC art scene back them that eschewed any sort of confrontational realism and loved acre after acre of abstraction of all hues and shapes.
Some time after that I met her for the first time, and soon after I co-opened the first Fraser Gallery in Georgetown in 1996, and then I became good friends with her and spent many a good time in her splendid apartment in Adams Morgan, including a quite memorable New Year's in either 1996 or 1997.
My next memory comes when she had an exhibition of her ex-boyfriend's penis. Multiple paintings of that particular gent's penis were the talk of Washington in those days, and for quite a long time, there always seemed to be a Manon Cleary penis in every MOCA group show.
Then I recall the disturbing scenes in her rape paintings, which I think were first exhibited at MAP's old space in Baltimore. Here was the artist at her most powerful: taking the ultimate assault on a person and disseminating it to a powerful and beautifully painted series of images on canvas. Here was Cleary exerting the power of realism over all the other "isms" in a manner and form which only years of concentrated and meticulous work can deliver - the same span of years which eventually delivered the death prescription to this master.
Over the years that followed, we saw the quality of her spirit, as she continued to be a key part of the DC art scene, even as her health deteriorated.
I last saw her at the book release party for 100 Artists of Washington, DC, in which she is - of course - included. She thanked me for including her in the book and I told her how honored I was that she was part of it.
I used to call her "Manoncita" or Little Manon, and it is a bit unsettling, as I spent some time last night looking at the digital footprint of old emails between Manon and I, to see that term of endearment applied to such a giant of an artist.
I will miss you Manoncita.
Monday, November 28, 2011