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Z And The Bear

Mark Manning paints the classic imagery of children's illustrator Alfred Bestall in an effort to recapture the lost innocence of childhood

Z And The Bear is an unlikely exhibition by Mark Manning, the author, artist and sometime collaborator with Bill Drummond who once rocked his way across America in the ironic art-school heavy-metal experiment known as Zodiac Mindwarp & The Love Reaction. Considering his past life as the “Tattooed Love Messiah” it seems somewhat surprising to find Manning creating a series of large-scale paintings based upon panels from the 20th century illustrator Alfred Bestall’s classic Rupert The Bear stories (in the show’s accompanying literature, Drummond argues that these tales had a more profound influence on British psychedelia in the 1960s than the works of Lewis Carroll). Although most of Manning’s paintings seem to be a very pure evocation of Bestall’s original works, there are a few in which hints of subversion come into play, usually in the form of strange runes and swirling blue skies that tip a large nod to Van Gogh (in one or two cases, these even hint at Pollock-esque abstraction).

Dazed Digital: What inspired you to recreate Alfred Bestall’s images?
Mark Manning:
I was getting old. On the last page in Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, there’s a character with a tear in his eye that’s 50 years old who says, ‘Make me young again...’ That’s what it’s all about really. I didn’t want to recapture my youth. I just wanted express it.

Dazed Digital: Was it a return to a lost innocence?
Mark Manning:
Well, the happiest time of my life was when I was about seven years old. I had all these great friends in my imagination: Rupert was my pal and I was in love with Morwena and the Girl Guides, and then there was Pong Ping and Bill Badger.... I just decided I wanted to go back to that. I mean, in the case of most of the paintings, you can’t really look at them without thinking, ‘That was a happy time...’ Some of the paintings are a bit fucked up, like the one with the runes on the Girl Guides’ lapels, but I’m not trying to make any big subversive statements or anything like that. I think that is why Bill Drummond supported me, because I wanted to try and be true to something pure. Bill and I go back almost 30 years now and have worked on all kinds of stuff together. Bill kind of created me in a way. He produced Zodiac Mindwarp And The Love Reaction’s first album and projected me into a world of madness. This is kind of a refuge from that world.

Dazed Digital: Has Rupert's world always stayed with you as a place you can escape into?
Mark Manning:
My love of Rupert has lasted all my life, and I am never happier than when I am making one of these paintings in my studio. I choose the cheapest paints, and the cheapest canvas because the magic isn’t in your tools, it’s in your fingers. I am myopic, so I have to take my glasses off to look at the originals. I actually use a projector to blow them up to these sizes. I suppose this started out as a form of therapy but it turned into something else in some of the paintings, and it got quite intense. I mean, if you look at some of them, you can see that they’re not fucking nice. I am trying to be nice but there’s a lot of anger in some. If I manage to do one that isn’t angry then I’ve bought two days of peace in my mind.

Dazed Digital: Is this a form of meditation for you then, a way to keep a handle on things?
Mark Manning:
Yes. I’m trying very hard to keep my feet on the ground at the moment. The artistic temperament is one of extremes. My music is violent, extreme filth, and you have to keep a handle on all of that because being an artist can go horribly, horribly wrong: there’s countless artists that have ended up in tragic situations. I suppose art is the arena where you can express all kinds of thoughts that you can’t really express in the real world. If you do express them in the real world you are going to get into all sorts of trouble.

Dazed Digital: Is there a subtext to the work of Alfred Bestall?
Mark Manning:
An interesting subtext to his work is that he started out illustrating Vogue, and he kind of unconsciously made all the girls in the Rupert strips quite sexy. I think it’s just in the way that he draws the legs – they are quite fashion model-like. That kind of intrigued me, because he put that same aesthetic he employed for Vogue into the girls in Rupert, which possibly fucked an entire generation of kids up! (Laughs) He’s been totally obliterated from the canon of great children’s illustrators, which happened because of his depictions of black people. I think that was just a mistake that happened because he was a product of a colonial culture. I think forgiveness is a good thing.

Z And The Bear is at L-13 Light Industrial Workshop from June 18 – July 4