"Oh no, I don't paint. Every now and then I dabble in watercolours, but I’m very much an amateur, if we’re being honest. All this stuff is my son's detritus. He was home for a few weeks and he left all this crap just lying around."
I am in the dusty, sun-bathed lounge room of Dr Karen Manheim, sitting in a couch that is trying to swallow me whole, drinking tea from a mug with faded blue text, reading LIPITOR™ (atorvastatin), for effective control of hyperlipidaemia. A blade of afternoon sunlight illuminates the dusty air as Dr Manheim (or is it Ms Manheim, or Karen?) shuffles back and forth from the kitchen, bringing still-warm biscuits that she insists I try at least one of, and removing stacks of important-looking paperwork from the coffee table. Being waited upon is making me unbearably uncomfortable, so I busy myself with the contents of my bag, looking for the pen & pad which I know are in my hip pocket. I am here to interview her about her son, and my heart sinks for a moment when I hear that he was home, rather than is home.
¤ ¤ ¤
I decided on writing this short biography when I was in my hometown of Albany, Western Australia, browsing in the second-hand bookshop where, as a teenager, I had first discovered Tropic of Cancer, Fear and Loathing, The Naked and the Dead, and all the rest of those great books that are the mainstay of a teenage lit-nerd’s diet. I was searching for something I could buy in order to leave the place guilt-free, when I happened to see, on the spine of a thin hardback in the ART & ART HISTORY section, a name that seemed curiously familiar. Opening it at a random page, I was left dumbstruck by the image I saw — a wiry, tremulous sketch of a dark-haired young woman, her head and shoulders occupying the page from corner to corner, as she took a a bite from a starfruit and stared past my ear in deathly concentration — and was immediately transported back to 2016, where I was seeing this sketch hanging on the wall of perhaps Melbourne’s smallest and dingiest art gallery, feeling elated and nervous on my third date with the young lady who would eventually become the recipient of my child support payments. It was a warm day in June, and we carried our coats under our arms as we left the exhibition with our fingers intertwined. The name of the artist whose work we mostly ignored was Albert Manheim, a name that I was to vaguely remember from that day onwards.
I assumed that writing a piece like this would be a simple case of updating an old one, adding some commentary on his newer works and the small amount of press they have received, but after searching all the usual places I found not one decent profile of Albert Manheim that I could work from. Though my skills in internet sleuthing have been called into question on more than one occasion, it would seem that this is a true case of a prolific but largely undiscovered artist, the holy grail of art journalism (if, rather than eternal life, the grail bestowed on its discoverer a modest fee and a few weeks of heady certainty that becoming a journalist wasn’t the waste of time that one’s father said it would be). The decent human being in me said, "How tragic that the public has missed out on these works, I should make them known, so that we all can enjoy them," and the journalist in me said, "I bet The Monthly will cough up nicely for this one!"
¤ ¤ ¤
Beginning in Tamworth, New South Wales, the story of Albert Manheim's childhood sounds just like that of any other energetic, relentlessly interested boy. "He was a real handful," says Dr Manheim, before recounting a series of childhood stories that give the sense of having been told hundreds of times before. Albert the toddler wandering off in a foreign city, eating prodigious amounts of Christmas ham, falling from various heights while doing various unusual things and arousing the suspicion of passersby with his arms full of bruises, et cetera. I laugh quietly. Then the routine of going to the local primary school, staying with the auntie-who’s-not-an-auntie for a few hours each afternoon until mum finishes work, playing Nintendo 64 and climbing around the garden on weekends, seeing the grandparents a few times a year. I feel for a moment that Dr Manheim might be recounting my own life to me. She mentions casually that as a child he was named Albert Young, having been given his father's surname. I ask whether she and his father were fans of AC/DC — she smiles in acknowledgement of the joke, and tells me that yes, they were tempted to call him Angus, but they "didn't have the guts" and instead gave that name to their dog. She goes to the shelf to find a photo of Albert holding Angus on his lap in what looks like a vet’s office, Albert being perhaps seven or eight years old with sandy hair and a cheeky grin, and Angus being a small spaniel with a cone over his head.
Both of Albert's parents were doctors. His mother, now 67 years old, still works full-time as a GP in Noosa, Queensland, and his father, Morris Young, previously a radiologist, has retired to a property in central Victoria. I ask if Albert ever considered medicine as a career. "Well, I think at one time or another he considered pretty much anything you can name as a career. I think in the end he became an artist just to avoid having to make a choice about it." Does she think growing up in a medical household has had an influence on his work? “Well, who knows? I don’t know a lot about art. Perhaps if his father and I had been circus performers he would have become a tax lawyer.” Spending Saturday mornings sitting in the radiology lab with his father, one can't help but imagine him being bored with the world of medicine already.
After seven years of living in rural New South Wales, a near-tragedy ignited a change in the family's collective existence. Karen's father, Hermann Manheim, an immigrant widower who had remarried with an immigrant widow, called the house in the very early morning one winter Saturday. "He called me in tears, saying that he loved me but he couldn't go on, that he had swallowed a lot of tablets and just had to say goodbye," Karen tells me, as a simple matter of fact. I press her gently for more details, which she gives without hesitation. Ambulances were called, sleepy-eyed children were carried into the car, and within eight hours the family were standing around Hermann's bed in Noosa's general hospital. It came to be known that his marriage was miserable, his mortgage was destroying him financially, and he had been drinking a bottle of whiskey every day for the past several years. "He had been a depressive person for as long as I could remember, but I never thought he would be stupid enough to actually try killing himself. Fortunately he was also stupid enough to try doing it with his blood pressure tablets."
The quasi-near-death experience prompted Hermann's wife to divorce him, and his daughter to move in with him, bringing her three children with her. Their father stayed in Tamworth, ostensibly just until another radiologist could be found to take his place, but over the course of a decade the promise to follow them northwards was repeated less and less often, until it was no longer mentioned, and phone calls were only made on Christmas and the kids’ birthdays. Though he was born with his father’s surname, Albert changed it by deed poll in his late teens, and as far as Karen knows (or is willing to say), he has since been estranged from his father. But the move to his grandfather's house turned out to be a boon to the young Albert — the two of them got on famously, and quickly became near-inseparable. "Thick as thieves", his mother says of their mischievous partnership. "[Hermann's] favourite phrase was, 'Don't tell your mother about this.’ When Albert comes home it feels a little like having my father’s ghost in the house." They would spend innumerable hours in the workshop Hermann had built under their old Queenslander home, where he had been making fine wood sculptures and marquetry for many years, and where Albert learned the basics of woodworking.
¤ ¤ ¤
Dr Manheim picks up her mug and pushes herself out of the couch with a purpose. “I’ll show you some of the things they made! They’re all over the place here.” There is Hermann's coffee table, Albert's chest of drawers, Hermann's enormous candelabra, Albert's sprawling ceiling rose, Hermann's jewellery boxes (apparently full of paperclips, spare keys, and receipts), Albert's rocking chair, and so on. I follow her through a double-wide doorway into the dining room-cum-library, where the afternoon light charges like a rugby team through the row of full-height windows that face me. Most of the papers she removed from the living room earlier are now stacked on the long dining table (the surface of which is inlaid with a honeycomb pattern of timbers in shades that vary between eggshell and dark chocolate), and five of its eight chairs are supporting similar stacks of magazines, paperback novels, journals, and crates containing what look like rolls of colourful fabrics. In the corner beneath a window I spot a large electric sewing machine, perched on top of its hard carry-case, surrounded by a tangle of cables that appear to attach to more foot-pedals than a person could reasonably use at once. Turning around to face the long wall that separates this room from the one we just left, and with a grin on her face, Dr Manheim throws her arms out wide to declare to me the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that run the length of the room, a room that would easily fit two sedans end-to-end. Each shelf has the thickness of a paperback novel, is made of a wood the colour of caramel that seems to almost glow in this saturating light, with an inlay of ivory-coloured wood along each outward edge that is delicately carved into a twisting grapevine. From floor to ceiling, wall to wall, they are absolutely chock-a-block. I ask if all the books are hers. “Oh no, no, no. About a quarter of them are mine, I think that shelf there was mostly my second husband’s, and the rest are Albert’s. He’s a bit of a hoarder, like me, I’m afraid.” But why does he hoard things at his mother’s house? “Well, he shares a flat, you see. Hardly enough space to swing a cat." I nod, as she looks rather pensively at the tea in her mug. "I suppose I always worried that, of my three children, Albert would be the one who would wind up being poor. They’re all smart, but the other two don’t object to making a good living, whereas he somehow feels guilty about the idea of making money. I don’t know where he got that from — I don't think it was me, and it certainly wasn’t his father.” I don’t quite know how to respond, so I break the silence by asking if she and Albert have similar taste in books. "Not really. He likes difficult books, but I gave up on those ages ago." And her other kids? She laughs her dry, cough-like laugh and says, “Neither of them are big readers.”
From here she proceeds to give me The Grand Tour, pointing out the many weighty wooden tables, chairs, wall hangings, and sculptures that, in total, must have involved the felling of a small forest. (The only handiwork of Karen's that are on display are the large, colourful quilts that hang on at least one wall of every room, which are made from printed fabrics featuring some common theme — New Zealand wildlife on one, farm animals on another, locomotives and wooden bridges on yet another — all cut into geometric shapes and arranged in startling but questionably meaningful ways.) The question that comes to my mind is, Where are the photos, the paintings, and the prints? This is an artist who, if he were known, would be known for dabbling in almost every medium under the sun, but here we stand amongst the carved-up remains of Australian trees, which is almost disorienting in its kaleidoscopic patterns of brown-on-brown, where shapes begin to lose their meaning. Where are the lithographs, where are the drawings, and why is everything so brown? I casually mention the abundance of woodwork, and Dr Manheim catches my meaning, mercifully. (I suspect that years of working with the sick and vulnerable have attuned her ear to the subtle hints of unspoken questions.) “Yes, Albert has always been a bit funny about his paintings and things. He puts them on display for everyone else to see, but somehow he doesn't like them being seen too much by the people who are close him. He seems to want people to enjoy them and then forget them. But his woodworks, well, I think they're comforting to him, and when he makes something new he usually just leaves it here somewhere.”
But surely this amount of work is disproportionate to the other media he has worked in? If he is known for abandoning a technique once he feels competent in it, then why didn’t he stop carving trees a long time ago? Dr Manheim swirls the now-(surely)-tepid tea in her half-empty mug, sips it, and puts it down beside another cup that has been sitting on the windowsill for who-knows-how-long. “Oh, I know, it’s dreadful, isn’t it? It’s this obsession with his grandfather. He’s always been a lonely kind of boy, and he took my father’s death very badly.” Hermann Manheim died of lung cancer in 2009, when Albert was 17. He had been a heavy smoker ever since his brief stint as a coal miner in his 20s, and within eight months of first coughing up clots of blood he was bed-bound in a hospice. “He was Albert’s only good friend, really. After his opa finally died, Albert suddenly became very introverted, and started behaving in some quite odd ways. He wore father’s old shirts, listened to his old records, cooked Hermann’s World Famous Spaghetti Omelette again and again, you see what I mean? He became secretary of the Men's Shed group, like father was, hanging around with all those old men making toys for their grandkids. He’s gotten over a lot of that stuff now, but he’s never stopped with the woodworking. I think in some way he wanted to replace his grandfather. It’s part of this whole obligation complex of his; not living for himself, if you know what I mean.” An obligation to whom, exactly? “Exactly.” Then she picks up her mug and takes me out to see the fretwork on the back verandah.
At the end of our Grand Tour, after seeing the hollow spiral balusters lathed from eucalypt saplings, the Australian coat of arms reproduced in marquetry upon the hallway floor, and a dozen other feats of skill that fill this dizzying home-slash-portfolio, Dr Manheim leads me through the exuberant mishmash of her side garden to the garage-cum-storage shed. Amongst the usual assortment of camping gear, brown cardboard boxes, and oily garden machinery that clutter up your average garage, is a series of frankly dangerous-looking devices that tend to inspire a feeling of inadequacy in a male who, like most of the rest of his species, has abandoned the idea of making things. Looking at the rusty band saw in the corner, I suddenly understand Albert’s desire to be a ‘practical artist’, as his mother puts it. (She also puts it to me that he ought to find a better place for ‘all this filthy crap’.) But this is not why we are here — we are lifting our feet high and placing them on tip-toes in the spaces between the boxes and the spider-webbed castor wheels in order to reach a dusty wooden box on a far metal shelf, and carry it back to the dining room, where we can open it and reveal what appears to be several thousand 10×15 cm photos stacked in neat columns, with paper dividers sticking out a finger-breadth above their top edge to separate them into groups such as ‘Apr–Nov 2012’, ‘Mar 14–Oct 15’, and ‘Easter 2021’. A small lidless cardboard box in one corner contains a rattling assortment of SD cards and USB flash drives, at least one of them bearing the name of an unpronounceable medication stamped in bold text on its side. “I think this is most of it, but he might have some of the more recent stuff at his place.” She explains to me that this is Albert's personal record of his work since his first public show. A cold quiver of excitement runs from the back of my skull down to the tips of my fingers, now that I have an answer to the question that has been nagging at me since I started thinking about this article — How the hell am I supposed to sound like I know what I’m talking about, when all the evidence I have of his work is an 80-page book and a dim memory of two exhibitions I saw a few decades ago?
¤ ¤ ¤
So now I can just get to the point, and talk about the works themselves. To the best of my knowledge, Albert Manheim’s œvre consists of one collection of wood sculptures, one of woodblock prints, two of portraits, one of self-portraits, one of micro-videos, one of oil paintings, two novellas & one film script (which I have not read, and therefore will not mention again, if you will kindly forget that I mentioned them at all), and an unknowable number of individual pieces, commissions, and potboiler works that are scattered across the land. The major visual works are as follows.
2012 — Noosa Woodworks
This set of ten rough-edged wood sculptures was Albert's final portfolio for his BA (hons) at ANU, presented to the faculty in November 2012. Each was carved from a 40×40×40 cm cube of wood that he had collected from fallen trees near his grandfather's home. His grandfather, or opa, was also the subject of the series, which displays some telling scenes from his life. There is a young, lean Hermann leaning over a railing on a cut-out segment of a ship (presumably) on its way to Australia, a much portlier Hermann laughing along with two children that he holds aloft on his shoulders, and a cachectic Hermann lying open-mouthed in a hospital bed. In between there are scenes of him drinking alone at a kitchen table, hammering nails into the side of a child's play-house on stilts, sitting on the stump of a fallen tree with a cigarette, and so on. The central piece of the collection, in ivory-white wood that stands out from all the many shades of brown, is Hermann standing knee-deep within the thick base of rough, uncarved wood, and raising a hammer above his chisel as he works to free his own legs from within the dead, raw material. The collection was chosen by the faculty as one of the three best portfolios from his graduating year, and thus it received an extended exhibition at the campus gallery, the Drill Hall Gallery.
"Apart from it being his forté in a technical sense, I think he wanted to do woodworks for his big project because he was annoyed by a lot of the other students. He thought they didn't exercise any practical skills in their art, which to him meant quite a lot. He was always talking about practicality, and making something ‘real’. The sculptures I thought were quite well-made, but some of the things he said about the other students, well, they were just mean. I think he liked it that way, though — playing the tough country boy amongst the effete city boys, who didn’t use chisels or band-saws, and who wore safety goggles when they were throwing caustic substances around. As for the subject matter, well, I don't think I'd like to talk about that much more than we already have. Sorry."
2014 — Our Floating World
A series of 22 woodblock prints that draw on his maternal grandmother’s Japanese heritage to depict scenes from Australia’s farms and rural towns in the classic ukiyo-e style. There are snorkelers reaching out to touch colourful fish above a coral reef, a red-armed truckie slouched in his cab, a bare-chested shearer in the shade of a windmill, a group of schoolchildren running gleefully in their plaid tunics and wide-brimmed hats, two men staring at the sausages on a barbeque as two women (presumably their girlfriends) marvel at a third woman’s smiling baby, and so on. Perhaps the most striking is a landscape of a dry, yellow paddock, with domed blue-green hills in the distance, and a collapsing corrugated iron shed in the foreground, in which a pair of foxes is eating the hind leg of an upturned, lifeless sheep. Apart from the three landscapes, which are highly detailed and fill their frames to the brim, the images are gracefully simple, floating (as it were) in the middle of the ample space within their frames, letting the textures of the silk and inks hold forth. The inks are in flat, subtle earth tones that give a softness to the images, and make for a very convincing facsimile of the handful of ukiyo-e prints that form the basis of most Westeners' awareness of Japanese art.
"Again, I think this was Albert’s sense of obligation entering into things. He lived under the impression that he had obligations to the whole world — to be different, to be interesting, to be inclusive, to be critical, to keep producing work, just on and on it goes! He never seems to feel any obligation to himself, to enjoy life or go after the things that would make him happiest, like maybe a girlfriend. He had drawn on my father’s life and work, so I suppose he felt obliged to take something from my mother’s life too. The problem was that she died ten years before he was born, so really the only thing he knew about her was that she was a Japanese immigrant who taught violin and was very strict with her children. So no, I don’t like the prints very much. To me they seem like an oversimplification, they’re almost rude in the way they presume to have something to do with my mother. I’m sure that Albert and his obaa-san would have gotten along very well, but there’s no point in trying to make a connection with someone who died before your parents even met."
2015 — Here We Are
A series of paintings in acrylic on cardboard, depicting a handful of people (mostly Albert’s family members, Dr Manheim explains to me) in their solitary moments at home. They have the warm pastel tones of a royal or presidential portrait, with soft-focus backgrounds that suggest a sympathetic and beautifying portrayal, but the people themselves are flabby, unkempt, and unself-conscious in their solitude. The teenager slumps in a sofa with an Xbox controller in his hands, the shirtless girl stares into a full-length mirror from the edge of her bed, the pudgy balding man slumps half-asleep at the dinner table as a child stares at the unappealing sludge on his plate, the anxious dog in a shock collar sits next to the reclining woman fixated on her glowing iPad. Dr Manheim is depicted as a head that protrudes from the back of a couch, barely more than a tuft of dark hair perched upon a blue neck, and the television before her fills the room with its soft glow. Like the other people in these portraits, she is so passive as to be almost a part of the furniture — all their eyes are small and lifeless, their bodies are collapsed into their surroundings. They are living still life.
"That whole thing began with the portrait of me, the one where I am sitting on the couch. Originally he got me to sit for a normal portrait, just sitting in a chair and looking off to the side, but he said he didn’t like being one of those artists who want to be seen painting. So he started painting people while they were busy doing other things, and I think he tried to just make himself invisible. I remember where the title came from, too! Albert and [his sister] Emily were at home over Christmas, and their uncle had given one of them a David Attenborough box set as a present. So they were watching the young Attenborough from the ‘70s, strolling through the plains and the tundras, and every time he met some new animal he would say something like, “Here we are, in the so-and-so mountain ranges or caves or desert or whatever, where one might, if one is lucky, catch a glimpse of the frightfully rare spotted bald-legged so-and-so.” They loved it, and it became a bit of a running joke for them. Albert would often walk into a room, and if nobody had heard him come in, he would creep up and whisper something like, “And here we are, deep within the abode of the very timid and enigmatic Manheim tribe, whose reclusive habits make them an absolutely exquisite example of blah-de-blah.” And so you get the idea. But I didn’t like the paintings very much. It’s just that they weren’t very flattering …"
2016 — Possible Thoughts
A collection of approximately fifty sketches, made with black felt-tip pens on A4 paper, with one ragged edge from being ripped out of a spiral-bound sketchbook. Each is a portrait of a (seemingly) random person on the street, on a bus, in a hotel lobby, or some other public space, with a handwritten caption showing what Albert imagined that person was thinking in that moment. They have a haphazard, hyper-energetic style that appears to almost explode upon the page, with jagged lines and scratches that give the sense that they were drawn in only a handful of seconds. Each line gives nothing away, but together they coalesce into an image highly suggestive of fine details that cannot be inspected directly. The people captured in their ponderous moments are predominantly concerned with tedious daily thoughts of work, commuting, money, ambivalent relationships, and all the other things that occupy our minds more than we would like them to. There is a vague undercurrent of melancholy, but the occasional piece simply pokes fun of the oddness of the thoughts that we know nobody else can hear — “I bet I could kick that duck up the arse if I moved really quietly,” a round-headed man in a raincoat thinks as he stares at the ground beyond the frame. The collection also contains one of Albert’s first self-portraits: he appears as a young man sitting on a train, drawing (or perhaps writing) in a spiral-bound notebook as a sparse, dry landscape speeds past the window, with the caption, "The world is dying. I am alone. The world is dying. I am …"
"I think the sketches are my favourites. They were a bit impressionist — you couldn’t get any details from them up close, but in a bigger way they gave a kind of intuitive feeling for the details. I really don’t know how he managed that, though I know it didn’t come naturally to him. He spent years practicing, trying to get his sketches down on the paper as quickly as he could. He was like a blur, it was almost unbelievable to see! But he was frustrated for a long time by his drawings. I still have the one of the man at the pond, do you know the one I mean? Oh, he’s sitting on the park bench, hunched over, with a worn-out hat and a walking stick, and he’s staring out over the water. He looks very sad, or perhaps regretful, just quietly staring into the distance, but the caption says something like, “Oh yes, I mustn’t forget to buy more laxatives for Janice.” Albert always liked to put a joke into something serious, to keep people guessing."
2018 — The Things We Will Remember (When Everything Else Is Gone)
This was the second of Albert’s exhibitions that I inadvertently saw, this time while waiting for an appointment at the rather imposing offices of the family court. Having found a car park, and with 45 minutes to spare, I wandered into a gallery two doors down the street, and found myself in a large room with white noise piped in from all directions, and completely unlit except for the collection of mismatched, shabby-looking video projectors hanging from the ceiling, which each threw a square of looping video footage upon the empty white walls. I stood staring at the first one for several minutes, in which a young man in a snowy back yard chopped blocks of wood and threw them into a waist-high pile, before realising that he just wasn’t going to stop. Moving throughout the show I found that a series of partitioned rooms featured 40 such video pieces. The projectors above my head were each attached to an old iPhone (presumably collected from friends and acquaintances who had upgraded to a newer one), running an app that integrated small pieces of video footage, layered one over another, to create loops of footage without any clear beginning or end. In the first video, the snow, the woodcutter, the dog that occasionally scampers in and out of the frame, and so on, are all separate elements that are combined using rotoscoped masks and dynamic shadowing, so that they can have independent and semi-random periodicities, creating a heightened reality in which time seems to stand still upon a moment, and the viewer can become separated from the normal flow of time for a minute or so. Sweat drips off the face of a tired but smiling mountain biker who breathes deeply as he sits on the ground next to a forest trail, with insects and small birds flitting about in the trees above. A watchful cattle dog receives gentle pats on its head from a hand whose owner sits out of frame, occasionally barking in silence at something or other, and turning its head to follow the cars passing by on the suburban street. A still-hairless baby cries on its mother’s shoulder, drooling onto her shirt from a twisted-up mouth and grabbing at the air with tiny fists. A GameBoy Pocket's screen fills the greater part of one projection, showing Pokémon battles being fought over and over again, as scenery is barely visible rushing past the window of the car in which the young Poké-fan is sitting.
"I do vaguely remember him making some video loops, he might have shown me some of them on his computer. Either way, I didn’t see them at a show, I would definitely remember that. That’s the thing — as a parent you try to keep up with everything your kids are doing in their lives, but there’s usually so much happening in just one life that you really wouldn’t mind being bored once in a while. I mean, I have three children, and I’ve got an empty nest now, if you want to put it that way, but I’ve also got my practice and my friends and my chickens to worry about. It does make me feel guilty when I miss out on seeing Albert’s shows or my grandkids’ birthdays, of course, and I really try to be engaged, but I’ve learned to worry about those things a lot less than I once did. I’m glad to have some time on my own these days. I can just work, and cook, and garden, and spend my weekends only worrying about myself for a change. That's the idea, anyway."
2020 — Wherever I Go, I Am There
A set of photographic self-portraits, numbered 1 to 26, each measuring exactly one metre square. In each image Albert is seen reflected in a surface of some kind, but digitally altered to remove the camera from his hands and place his arms in a more natural position, in order to see as if through his eyes, rather than through his camera. The viewer is invited to inhabit Albert’s body, always with his eyes fixed on the viewer’s (because when do we ever see our own face if it isn’t looking back at us?). #1 is very simple, with himself just standing upright with a blank face in front of a large mirror, in what looks like an empty suburban bedroom. Moving along the series, the images grow more complex. #5 sees him walking past a café window, carrying canvas shopping bags in each hand, frowning at himself as families and young couples eat breakfast on the other side of the glass, some laughing, some solemn, some bored. #16 is dominated by a thirtysomething woman standing at the opposite side of a kitchen bench, holding a mug to her face, half-turning to see the rugby game on the TV far behind her, and Albert’s distorted and foreshortened figure is visible in the shiny steel teapot on the edge of the bench. #26 is the busiest of all, taking place at what appears to be a New Year’s Eve party, where his face can only be half-discerned in the reflection from the glass door of a balcony that looks out over the Brisbane skyline. Each exhibition also featured a final portrait made specially for the gallery in question, with himself standing amongst a crowd, seeing his face in the glass of that same photo's frame. The result was a hall-of-mirrors effect, with the image repeating itself infinitely within the smaller and smaller frames. Viewing the collection in sequence, one sees more and more complex scenes that take more and more effort to decipher (that is, to figure out where Albert is [or perhaps where we are] and what is happening around him/us), but ultimately the viewer sees the very obvious fact that there is one constant here, which is Albert. We are faced with the frustrating truth — whose obliteration is arguably the entire purpose of the entertainment industry, perhaps even all human art — that we are the one person who we can never get away from, who never takes their leave and lets us be truly alone for a while.
"I thought he’s done too much navel-gazing in his more recent work, to be honest. I mean, don’t you think it’s very self-centred to have an exhibition of your self-portraits? One or two is fine, but 20 or 30? Really. But I did like the Where’s Wally aspect of it — I went to the exhibition and the people there would start by moving pretty quickly from one photo to the next, but as they went along they would stay on each one longer and longer, squinting and getting up close to try to find Albert’s face in amongst it all. Kind of like a Hitchcock movie. I liked that interactive side of the photos, they definitely weren’t dull to look at. But I don’t know who would buy one. Albert isn’t an ugly boy by any stretch, but all he did in those pictures was frown. Honestly, would you want to have a man perpetually frowning at you from your living room wall?"
2025 — Insight / Foresight / More Sight
A series of oil paintings, on canvases 50×100 cm (rather short & squat, if the orientation is somewhat ambiguous), which give as true a depiction of human sight as Manheim was able to achieve. They might be described as photo-realistic, but would better be called visuo-realistic. They showcase the rather poor and imperfect information that is transmitted to our brains, and which must be processed by our wrinkled cortices to create for our conscious minds the illusion of full-field 6/6 colour vision that we all believe we have. To this end, they are hyper-realistic within a circle that is a few finger-breadths in diameter (representing the two degrees of vision provided by the fovea, the retina’s most sensitive and cone-dense area), beyond which the brushstrokes rapidly become broader and the colours less vivid, until at the margins there is only a haze of greyish smudges. Albert's method involved photographing a scene with two cameras mounted on a home-made rig of timber and steel, digitally merging and processing the images in order to reduce their superhuman clarity and acuity to human levels, then using the composited image as a reference for painting upon the canvas. The result is a disorienting, blurred, doubled-up image in which a semi-transparent ridge of nose to either side of the canvas' centre, and similarly all the other objects that lie before or beyond the focal distance are doubled upon themselves, to a degree that is proportionate to their distance away. The viewer's eye is pulled almost magnetically to the small discoid focal point — looking elsewhere forces one’s eyes to constantly attempt to readjust and refocus, until they almost hurt. The subjects of the paintings are, for the most part, almost dull. Many of them are just empty geometric hallways and city street scenes, made abstract by the simultaneous splitting, refracting, and smearing of everything outside that small patch of clarity. A night-time driving scene is only recognisable by the two green smudges of the dashboard instruments that sit at the lower two quadrants, the six rows of alternating white and red dots that snake their way along the hazy ground towards a vanishing point over a deep black crest, and the pinpoint rear lights of another car that is just clear enough to see a person’s shadow against the hazy splash of its headlights beyond. But some of the paintings are quite poignant, for example #22, in which we see from the perspective of a small child whose chubby little hands clumsily stack a set of Lego blocks at the focal point, while two blurry and desaturated adult-sized figures stand in tense, hand-waving poses at the far end of the room (or rather at the far ends of the two rooms that are diametrically opposed on opposite sides of the frame), having what appears to be a silent argument.
"I think it must have started with a dinner we had with some work friends of mine. Our practice manager is married to an ophthalmologist, and he and Albert were sitting at the end of that big table there, and I suppose they were both a bit bored with the rest of us. Someone said something to James about how, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could take a photograph with our own eyes, or hook up the optic nerve to a computer screen, or something. James took issue with the idea, and started droning on and on about how wrong she was about how the eye functions. Then after he was done, and the rest of us went back to whatever we were talking about, the pair of them were leaning in close and speaking in hushed tones about the eyes and the brain, for basically the rest of the evening. Then that weekend Albert started going through my old physiology and anatomy books, which were just gathering dust on the shelves there. I think he still has my Guyton & Hall, actually."
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Alongside the works themselves, Albert also has an interest in displaying the makings of his works, so at all but his first two shows he supplied pamphlets that gave viewers a look behind the scenes, and which they were invited to take with them when they left. The pamphlet accompanying Here We Are contains photographs of Albert painting in the corners of dark rooms, momentarily lit by a camera flash, and the captions explain his sister's habit of taking these surprise photos of his surreptitious work. A rather funny series of pictures across several pages also shows his near-comatose, video-gaming brother, first slouched unawares in a bean bag as he is being painted, then realising he is also being photographed, then giving the camera a manic smile and a thumbs-up, and then pointing in anger at the screen upon which he has (presumably) just died. Possible Thoughts’ pamphlet contains glossy printed copies of many of Albert’s failed sketches, (presumably) ruined halfway through by some minor mistake or slip of the pen, and subsequently crossed out with thick black lines. The photography and video shows are almost like instruction manuals in GIMP, Photoshop, and After Effects, showing samples of the innumerable layers and hidden elements that, when laid one upon another, produce the coherent final images. On the back page of the pamphlet from Insight is a watercolour painting, in (perhaps overly) lush, warm tones, of a skinny, messy-haired man sitting hunched upon the steps of a verandah. An easel is standing before him on the gravel path, and as he lifts the brush in his right hand he glances at the iPad in his left. In the bottom-right corner the credit is given to Karen Manheim, “with thanks and love”.
In the box of photographs that I sit on the floor and go mad in, I also find, in a section labelled ‘2009–2012’, a series of rather inelegant snapshots of graffiti on various walls, footpaths, and buildings in what appears (from the signage visible in some shots) to be the Australian National University campus, in Canberra. They are mostly stencilled, some poorly and some rather skilfully, and in a variety of styles — some blocky and minimalist, others aiming to catch every shadow and detail of whatever image is their source (though mostly these details are made redundant by the splattered and dripping spray-paint work). Visually, they are quite inconsistent, which makes it hard to say with any confidence how many people made them. Some of them interact with the solid environment around them — a long-tailed monkey swings from a light fitting, the silhouette of a woman in a raincoat wades through the waist-high lake water that laps at a wide concrete pylon, and so on. Others are saccharine attempts at Banksy-esque social commentary — witness the hand-sprayed slogan “THE WORLD IS YOURS”, with the “Y” crossed out in red paint by a frowning boy stencilled below it, who holds a dripping red paintbrush in his hand. Some are simple portraits of various comedians and musicians — Dave Chappelle, Carl Barron (or is it Paul Kelly? Or Moby?), Bob Dylan, etc. There is a large series of life-sized silhouettes by the entrances of various university departments — people stand under a giant magnifying glass at the anthropology building, a man is resisting strangulation by a rampant vine at the botany building, a man takes off with a jetpack and laser rifle at physics & engineering, and a portly bearded man takes a nap in an armchair outside the philosophy department. I briefly consider travelling to Canberra to see how many of these works were still visible, and how many had been painted over or blasted off the walls by the maintenance staff, but then I remember my last bank statement and decide that some mysteries are best left alone.
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Among the (always arguable) conceptual themes that run through Albert Manheim’s works, there is a rather concrete one that may connect them all — the appearance of the woman I come to think of as Caroline (named for the titular temptress from that classic Aussie rock song by that classic Aussie rock band Status Quo, which Dr Manheim plays on the stereo as she makes scones in the kitchen and I sit on the floor of the dining room, trying to rifle through the photos as quickly as possible [she later tells me, after I have developed acute RSI from scrawling a dozen pages of near-indecipherable notes, that it would be fine if I took the box home with me, as long as I brought it back before Easter]). I first notice her appearance as a rather mysterious figure in Noosa Woodworks — a young woman with a distinctive, angular bob cut, sitting cross-legged beside Hermann on a park bench with her head tilted back, in apparent enjoyment of sunshine in Winter (as evidenced by their heavy coats). Perhaps this was a childhood friend, a girlfriend from those university days, or a girl he hoped to woo by carving her portrait? Then I see her appearing again and again: the girl eating prawns at Christmas (complete with Santa earrings) in Our Floating World, the girl scowling in concentration as she forces her way through Infinite Jest in Here We Are, the girl eating fruit and pondering multivariate analysis in Possible Thoughts, the girl kissing the tall skinny man on the cheek at the New-Year’s party in Wherever I Go. When Dr Manheim brings the fresh, steamy scones in from the kitchen, I show her the handful of photos featuring this young woman, and she gives me a knowing nod. “Ah yes, I suppose she’s the one that got away. I’ve noticed her too, but he's always been very evasive whenever I've asked who she is. He usually says something like, ‘Oh, you wouldn’t know her,’ and leaves it at that.” I ask if she thinks the spray-painted stencil of the half-submerged woman on the pylon in Lake Burley Griffin was this same young lady again, and she seems quite perplexed. After studying the photo for a moment, she says, “I think you might be right! Yes, look at that hair, it must be her … I always thought someone else did these graffitis, and Albert only photographed them.” She looks from one photo to the other in silence for some time, before propping her head on her hand and saying, “Oh, dear oh dear, Albert. You know he’s never brought a girl home to meet his mother?” Then she pours the tea (I lost count of how many cups I drank that afternoon) and no more is said about it.
I learn little else from Dr Manheim about her son’s personal life. To my questions she repeatedly says, “But you’re here to talk about the art stuff, aren’t you?” She seems genuinely confused by my interest in such mundane matters as his friends, his home life, and his relationships with other people in the Australian art world. She seems happy to talk about her son’s childhood, as mothers invariably are, but Albert the adult is to remain vague and sketchy for me. I get the feeling that perhaps she simply doesn’t know much about his present life either. At the very least, could she just tell me if he is working on anything new? “Oh, I wouldn’t doubt it for a second. He just reads, cooks, and works. Always working.” And where can I find him? “Oh, no no no, sorry. I spoke to him before you came, and he said, ‘Tell them what you like, as long as it’s not my address.’ He was adamant.” A phone number perhaps, or an email address? She smiles, sits up straight in her chair, looks at the ceiling with feigned innocence, and zips her mouth shut with one hand.