My first encounter with Steven Antonio Manes was at Wolfgang Tillmans’ exhibition at Wiels. We both were waiting for a common artist friend, Julie Pollet. We both figured out that we were waiting for the same person but we didn’t dare to break the ice, so we let the job to our friend. However, walking through the rooms we discussed and I was very intrigued by his personality and I kept wondering how his work would have looked like. After that, I went on his Instagram and website and I was captured by this roughness, by his impetuous way of drawing and his raw and yet very emotional sculptures. We stayed in touch and now I decided it was about time to ask him some questions.
You are a very young artist so I’m very curious to know when did you decide that you wanted to be an artist? What did you study?
I’ve always been a real daydreamer; I remember as a kid I could stare at a wall for a long time. I didn’t feel bored, I could see faces or animals in the small cracks or imperfections of the wall or door or whatever I was looking at. Even just an abstract stain on something triggered me and, in my mind, I could start a whole fantasy story. I loved to look and stare at things and I think this also defined my gut feeling for composition in combination with colour and shapes. It kept on developing as I grew older. Later I would use this internal knowledge to translate into drawings how I feel inside.
That’s also what I wish to give to viewers of my work, to be able to recognize themselves in a drawing or start their own story by looking at a work. It’s a way of escaping if you wish. The world today has a lot going on and I believe art can offer so much beauty, so we can daydream again as when we were little.
When I was 14 years old, I went to the Arts School Pikoh Kunsthumaniora in Hasselt, I think there is where I really got the chance to continue exploring my potentials, I really liked going to school. The good guidance of all my teachers helped to bring out properly what I already knew inside. I didn’t know back then if it was possible for me becoming an artist but of course I always thought about it and believed someday I could reach that point. That is still today actually, it’s always an ongoing journey.
When I continued my studies in Sculpture at LUCA in Ghent and occasionally sold an artwork to teachers who dropped by in the atelier, that is when I also began thinking about it as something I could do as a living. I must thank my teachers who always motivated me and believed in my way of working as an artist.
You have southern-Italy roots, to what extent they have influenced your work?
Yes, both my parents as all my grandparents are Italian and so every year in the summer we returned to where my mother is from in the South of Italy, a small town, Nardò in Puglia. I enjoyed every second of those trips, even the 2000km long drive with the car to our destination. The older I got the more I started appreciating my roots and connecting more and more to that place. From the moment I arrive there it feels like coming back home a bit, even though I’ve always lived in Belgium and consider this my home too. But knowing I have history there is something that fills my heart with love and happiness.
As my work is also very earthly and grounded, I get a lot of inspiration by the landscape there. What I like the most is the abstract shapes and structures of the rocks. They feel hard and sharp but also soft and huggable at the same time (yes, I sometime hug a rock when I’m there). I love to touch them and feel the stones with my hands, sitting by the sea. I love this feeling of being connected to a place, to the earth and especially if it’s a place where you know your roots come from, I think that is a bit why I feel such attraction with rocks (earth as element). Next to the abstract rock formations, of course, also the movement of the sea, the warming sun and exotic plants and vegetation are a great source of inspiration.
In many of your drawings one can perceive this sort of horror vacui. How much of it is due to a formal choice and how much is instead an existential need to fill in gaps and voids?
You say it right, it is mostly an existential need I have. It feels very liberating to me as I’m drawing, it’s like all my energy and emotion flows throughout my hands into the drawing (or sculpture or other artwork I’m making). I never really have a fixed composition on forehand about how the work is going to look like when finished. I just start and throw myself into it. In my head there is maybe some sort of composition I want to have as an outcome, but it’s never fixed. A drawing can change a lot in the process. As with sculptures, this takes a bit more of preparation.
I like so much your work Restare nelle linee è difficile (Staying within the lines is hard). How much is difficult for you the stay within the lines? Whether is your piece paper but much broadly, can you stay within the lines of the art world, of the market?
I think staying within any kind of borders takes a lot of effort. I like to search for the borders and asking myself whether it’s a good thing or not to cross a line. Of course, this is all very subjective and a bit contradictory. In a world where there would be no borders there would be absolute freedom for everyone, but we’re not living in such a world and therefore are always reckoning with others around us. Even though everyone is always saying, ‘Do whatever you want’, it’s not easy without hurting someone else. So yes, I find it difficult to stay within the lines.
In making art therefore I find an escape because there are no rules for making art. In art you can do whatever you want. I think it offers a good way out from everyday life. I think I certainly can stay within the lines of the artworld. I feel very motivated to keep going and doing whatever it takes to go forward. The experiences I had up until now were all relatively positive.
Very recently you took part to the first edition of a new art fair in Milan, REA Fair. How was the experience of an art fair? What about the reaction of the Italian audience?
It was nice, I liked it. It wasn’t a really big fair but even with the pandemic going on there were many people showing up, which I didn’t expect. I had a lot of good reactions and I’m very grateful I could take part (since only 100 artists were selected out of more than 500 applications). The organisation of REA really did their best to make a success of the fair. Also, I love Milan and its vivid art scene. I always wish I could stay a little longer.
Your main influences are abstract-expressionism and Arte Povera. Tell us a bit about these influences.
Ever since I came across the work of Jackson Pollock, I instantly was a huge fan. I fell in love learning about his way of working and the very emotional side of his paintings. I clearly recognized myself in this way of working, to be able to completely lose yourself and express yourself to the fullest (borderless). Arte Povera taught me the more poetical side of making art. Being Italian helps to connect to this art movement even more than usual. The use of words in artworks and to work with simple materials, natural earth-like materials influenced me, especially in sculptural works. It doesn’t always have to be a more complex mix of material (I’m thinking about epoxy or something artificial like that). I like this simplicity in working with few materials, I think it’s very honest and it brings out the purer version of yourself. Keeping it simple, showing the raw. Like clay and plaster, metal, stone, …
Also discovering the work of Giuseppe Penone was touching. As an earthly person myself I can agree with his way of connecting to nature and the relationship we as humans have with it. I love this poetic, grounded side of the Arte Povera movement and it’s something I also wish to bring inside my work.
You are represented by Bruthausgallery. Tell me more about your relationship with the gallery.
I joined the gallery very recently. A good friend introduced my work to the gallerist, Joris Van der Borght, and he instantly wanted to meet me. I went in the following day and we had a good talk about my work and art in general. Afterwards, he offered me to join the gallery as one of the represented artists. I felt we had a good connection, so I was more than happy to accept the offer. It’s clear that good collaborations will flow from this, I’m honoured to be part of Bruthausgallery.
Your sculptures are very emotional. In my personal view, the ones made of steel or metals in general, you bring out a certain combative vibe. Those made of plaster and sackcloth, lean more onto disenchantment and reflection. Tell us more about your artistic practice, the process, and the relationship with materials.
I studied sculpture because I wanted to not only work on paper or canvas, but also find a way to bring the two-dimensional work into space as 3D sculptural work. In a certain way I’m trying to translate my drawings into sculptures. But this is much more challenging, and I still don’t think I’m quite there yet, it’s always an ongoing process. So, in my sculptural work I’m trying as hard as I can in different materials to create works in the same manner I do in my drawings. I love clay and plaster which I could use in abundance during my school years. I should do this again since clay is organic and you can shape it anyway you want with expressionistic results. As for the metal sculptures, this is a more recent experiment. I thought this could be a good material since it’s very solid and asks for a different approach. Instead of building something up (like is the case with clay) I must work with the material, modifying the metal with my force which as you say brings out a more combative vibe. I’m not sure yet where this will eventually lead to, but I believe it’s a good part of the ongoing process.
The question I’ve been asking to all the artists I have spoken with so far is about your reaction to the pandemic as an artist and how lockdown and restrictions have affected your practice and work.
I can say I was actually at peace, during the first lockdown. I could just wake up and be able for most of the time to just make art without too many distractions. Not having to go to work or meeting with people felt as a relief. I had time to think and new thoughts and experiments could flourish and come to existence.
Projects for the future
I feel like making sculptures with clay and plaster again now that I finally have a studio with enough space for it. I’m spending as much time as I can working in my studio. Next to that I’m looking forward to working closely on future exhibitions with Bruthausgallery. Some exciting collaborations with fellow artists and designers are also in progress. I’m feeling very motivated to keep going.