Kevin Mancera makes way for walking

In 2007, with Cien cosas que odio, a smart and funny book, made with a certain adolescent attitude and with the freedom and the spirit of transgression that is expected of those who use art to express themselves, we learn what Kevin Mancera hates. Among his ‘hates’ (some of which, of course, have already changed, as our hates and loves always change), we find things as diverse as ‘happy endings’, ‘pigeons’, ‘muscular men’ or ‘Op-art’. Beside these capricious, harmless hates, always pointed out with a sense of humor, it is already evident in this book that drawing is for him a passion, something that the artist does with love. (Excuse me: I know that in the contemporary world this beautiful word is quite devalued and creates suspicions). Over time, to the fascination of drawing Kevin joined another passion, or necessity, namely that of walking, to the point that today we can speak of him as a walking artist. And also as an artist who leaves his studio for various reasons: it is not simply gratuitous that this exhibition takes as its starting point, a copy of the painting Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet (1854), and the drawings of various plants that Kevin Mancera painted in the south of France as a tribute to the French realist.

‘Drawing is discovery,’ said John Berger, and, of course, walking is as well. The tradition of walking writers and artists is long and diverse, and has resulted in beautiful texts such as Walking by Henry David Thoreau, the transcendentalist American poet and essayist who preached the need to live in contact with nature. ‘I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of walking, that is, of taking walks, who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering,’ wrote Thoreau. And the fact is that the true walker is an idle man who wanders, in some cases in the open field or by country paths - like Sebald, who said that "walking has become an eccentricity", or as Richard Long or Hamish Fulton, who proposed Nomadism as a part of artistic practice, and for others, in the city, like the flanêur de Baudelaire, an author who, contrary to Thoreau, rejected the idea that the spiritual end of man is nature, and sought beauty in the chaos of the urban multitudes.

Kevin Mancera is not, I believe, the haphazard walker of nature nor the Baudelerian flanêur who is fascinated by the crowd. I find that his form of walking is different, because it is strongly inscribed within the scope of travel - not the immediate environment - that always comprises the search, but also the flight, there is self-consciousness but also estrangement. Hence the last part of his work places at one point an emphasis on the phrase ‘Yo no soy de aqui’ -I am not from here-, which refers us in a certain way to the provisional, to an existence on a border where the place of origin continues to hold weight, more or less, as a necessarily active force in memory.

Atahualpa Yupanqui, the composer and singer from whom Kevin Mancera steals a verse, namely Arenita del camino, to name this exhibition of his work, sings the following verses in his song Felicidad:

I also went to the road
I also went out to search
That corner of life
That they call happiness

These are verses that may have been in Kevin's head when he embarked on one of his earlier projects, entitled La felicidad (Happiness), which consisted of a long journey through various Latin American countries, looking for places called by that very same name. Where do we find ‘La felicidad’? It is a question that must have been asked by a traveling artist, who had to be guided by a map to find the answer. The somewhat bitter irony of this quest - which we divine as being both real and symbolic - does not go unnoticed by the spectator, nor does the humor, which, as
we know, is always benevolent.


Kevin Mancera returns to be a debtor of Yupanqui in the exhibition that we see today, because it is the singer who pinpoints in his songs a supporting idea:

Because I am not of these places
They accuse me of being a stranger
As if it were a sin
To live as the wind lives


Wherever I go,
I'm shelling out my dreams,
Even as others say,
A stranger passes by

A stranger is someone who usually looks more curiously at the environment than those who live within it as custom, and to a greater extent if it is an artist whose main objective is to capture what he sees on paper. From this strangeness, from this dis-familiarity, originates a series of drawings executed in three very different places: Sao Paulo, Amsterdam, and Mexico City.

In the first of these cities the artist was at times guided by the map, and at times by simple chance. The result is profuse and diverse, and rooted ostensibly in his earlier works. The spectator finds things as different as a street scene, where a group of young people play football, some pots with plants, a page with the lyrics of a poem by Vinicius de Moraes that was never put to music, a ladder, a motorcycle, a notice that invites us to a treatment for depression. But in reality we do not meet with them, but with their representation. Or put more precisely: what the viewer cannot fail to see is that he stands before drawings of things, not before drawn things. Because, in the first place, we attend a choice, a ‘selection’. Why did the artist choose this and not the other? If the eye registers so many things at once, some that escape the consciousness and others that we make conscious, what led Kevin Mancera to choose those rubber boots or that tank of water located nowhere in particular?

Let us return to Berger: ‘A drawing is an autobiographical record of one’s discovery of an event – either seen, remembered or imagined.’ Or, to put it another way, in a drawing what we see is how the subject and the object unite, or, going further, how the artist's gaze and our gaze communicate through that which is drawn. In the drawings related to Sao Paulo we get to see the walking artist, his eye, the reality of the outside, but we also get to intuit the process that was already beginning to materialize in lines and volumes, as well as in the senses. And there is enjoyment. For, to our good fortune, in the work of Kevin Mancera there is no discourse, no "great moral intentions" or need for theoretical context: the work sustains itself. The artist behind it is interested in reality in its mysterious dimensions, that which gives it the power to become abstract in front of the gaze, to be, above all, matter that changes according to the angle from which it is looked at. These drawings are humble, in the noblest sense of the word, without sociological pretensions or the evident presence of a self that expresses its intimacy. They refer us to the hand, the arm, the body, but also to attention, interpretation, and the rigor that comes from the first line, which, when traced, determines the whole, just as a first verse always determines the rest of the poem. They also have the virtue of stylistic coherence, but with a diversity of nuances. As in the rest of his work, there is a taste marked by the popular, and so we find the advertisement, the poster, the propaganda. In his book La felicidad, Kevin paints a sign that says:

Works on paper
Painted and installed
Cel _________info here

There is an allusion here to naive draughtsmen who exhibit their art in street advertisements, but I also seem to see a nod to the artisanal condition of drawing. We also find, as an extension of that taste, the presence of writing as a form of drawing - something that appears in some of his previous works - in the transcription of songs, for example, or brief explanations or annotations to the object. Sometimes this, completely isolated from the context, simplified in its lines, reaches levels of supreme abstraction: what we see are lines, volumes, black and white or color, in short, drawing that speaks of drawing, poetry over the white of the page. At other times, however, the drawing acquires an overwhelming concreteness, with something deliberate of infantile enlightenment.

The part of the exhibition that relates to Amsterdam means a change in relation to the references found in Sao Paulo. The first thing that stands out is the appearance of color, which feels like a discovery, a conquest by the artist, but not in the sense of something that has been achieved and is ‘better’ than previous works, but something that has been resorted to as something necessary. The profuse, the cumulative, the so very definitive of the sample based in Sao Paulo - which speaks of that compulsive force that is in every artist - no longer exists. What we see is another type of drawing, one that refers to the book as object, and more particularly to the encyclopedia, as well as to illustration as a way of naming and classifying the unknown. The book as another path, another journey. A black woman with a turban, a bird, a monkey drawn with the minutia of its hair, tells us of another kingdom, different from that of the deer, whose head separated from a disappeared body resembles a trophy, or the figure of a stone horse and his rider, alluding to the medieval world, all return us to the incisive phrase ‘Yo no soy de aquí’ which functions as the support of this small universe created by the artist. And behind it all, a certain gaze: that of Anthony van Dyck, the Dutch painter, who comes to join Mr. Courbet.

Let us return to John Berger: ‘All genuine art approaches something which is eloquent but we cannot totally understand. Eloquent because it touches something fundamental. How do we know? We do not know. We simply recognize. Art cannot be used to explain the mysterious. What art does is to make it easier to notice. Art reveals the mysterious. And when noticed and revealed, it becomes more mysterious.’


We arrive, in the exhibition, at the end of the road (if there is an end). In Mexico, Kevin's journey was another, which was born, I believe, with a small drawing that appears in the section of Sao Paulo, in which we see the sign Rua dos crisantemos. These are the names in Nahuatl of certain streets: Pachoaakan,
Pachuca (place of government); Tenatsinko (place of small walls) etc. Each name corresponds - in a random way, because it is not a matter of classifying or illustrating anything - to a drawing that returns us to a mythical past, to the iconography of certain sculptures or objects of the Anthropological Museum, transformed by the interpretation, purely subjective, of the artist. The spectator recognizes the old themes of all mythologies: origin, copulation as the beginning of life, fertility, power, death, but in the representations provided by Kevin the resounding strength of the stone is lost, and an emphasis is placed on the softness of the body: bones, skin, hair. A violent force pulses through these pieces, but also a human fragility that is born not only from the "texture" of the drawing, where the animal and the human merge, but from an air of tremendous devastation and helplessness: it is Mexico, but also Rome; Mesoamerica but also Africa. I am not from here (Yo no soy de aqui), but we all come from apes, nomadic peoples, warrior worlds, dethroned kings.
As in all art, there is something in the work of Kevin Mancera that remains unfinished or unarticulated, something that remains secret, or something that is lost. That something, I dare say, escapes us, because it resides in a location that not even the artist can access entirely: in a dark place where, with the power of poetry and thanks to intuition and creative fire, the worlds of the outside and the inside merge.

Piedad Bonnett
November 2016