Vast Spaces

How Kylie Manning’s colossal and elemental paintings took her from the wild corners of Alaska and Mexico to the top of the international art world.

Light / Dark

Both Sides Now

It’s nearly 9 p.m. on a late-summer night, just outside of Punta Mita, Nayarit, on Mexico’s Pacific coast. We’re on our way back from the beach after a twilight surf session and the rain is torrential, pounding onto the surfboards strapped to the racks of the red Jeep. Kylie Manning is riding up front with her father, Tom. I’m white-knuckling it in the back seat with Manning’s husband Peter Davis and local photographer Alex Patrick as Tom speeds up between the highway topes. Semitrucks barrel past, drenching the windows with sheets of water.

Seemingly oblivious to the dangers beyond the windshield, Manning turns in her seat and begins recounting details of the session, recalling the turtles that swam through the lineup, the lightning, and the machismo exuding from the other surfers. Water pours in through one of the doors and we all scream “Tope!” in unison from the back seat as another speed bump appears through the mess of rain, its accompanying signage refracting the road lights shimmering through the windshield. Tom rocks the vehicle over the obstacle, chuckling about the conditions. 

The Mannings are never fazed by less-than-safe situations, especially ones involving water. For some of us in the backseat, this moment could be considered a harrowing journey through a thunderstorm, down the coast from the family’s home in the storied fishing-cum-surf hamlet of Sayulita. For Manning and her pops, it’s just another day like many in the past three and a half decades.

Manning, trawling for likely setups in Nayarit. Photo by Alex Patrick.

The daughter-father duo exhibits a desire to be in the grips of extreme nature. It’s very Alaskan—a refusal to let weather get between you and enjoying the ways the elements might thrill or kill you. For these two, Juneau, Alaska, is central to their story—as it is to mine. That’s where Manning and I met as children and started a friendship that has lasted nearly 37 years.

Alaska’s promise of unbridled nature and abundant work opportunities stoked her parents’ dreams of adventure and family life. Manning and her sisters, Molly, Jackie, and Kelly, and eventually their brother, Joey, were all fixtures in my childhood. So, too, was their late mother, Marianne, whose passion and love for her children, her community, and arts education made her a pillar locally and across the massive state. From the outside, they were a “wolf pack,” as Manning so often likes to joke. 

The juxtaposition of Mexico and Alaska has always inspired Manning, whose lifelong passion for painting led her from the wilds of the Pacific Ocean to the art scenes of Mexico City, Leipzig, and, ultimately, New York City, where, weeks before I joined her in Mexico, I’d made a visit to her studio space in Ridgewood, Queens.

THE PLACES WE ONCE CALLED HOME, 2022, oil on linen, 72 × 96 inches, courtesy of Pace Gallery.

When she’d welcomed me in, she was finishing one of her sprawling paintings and preparing to sign and seal 15 large-scale pieces for shipment to Los Angeles. The body of enormous works—some 7 by 10 feet in size, popping with brilliant hues of pink, orange, and blue—was slated to be a part of her first solo show at the esteemed Pace Gallery, a monumental moment in her career as an artist. The exhibit, named after Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” follows the likes of David Byrne, Jeff Koons, and Maya Lin, whose work also has shown at Pace.

A reflective Manning said she couldn’t pinpoint the moment when she realized she wanted to be a painter. “It’s like how we don’t choose to eat or breathe. These elements were basic parts of living,” she said, gesturing toward the violent but somehow soothing abstracted mega-scapes of ocean, land, and enchanted ghostly figures that often constitute her paintings. “I don’t remember ever starting to paint—or surf. They were part of life before my memories began.”

She even joked that when her family couldn’t find her in the house as a child, they’d often happen upon her tucked into a corner, painting. These days, her compositions, reminiscent of the beaches of both Mexico and southeast Alaska, are inspired by her ever-growing photo archive of surf camps, bonfires, and groups of family and friends—the figures sometimes depicted in motion, other times sitting still.

In terms of sheer scale, she suggested the art world has rarely seen work like this from female painters. “I didn’t know I wasn’t one of the guys for decades,” said Manning, who grew up admiring the greats like Winslow Homer, JMW Turner, and even Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio for their epic depictions of the natural world. “These are people that likely wouldn’t have given me the time of day in real life, but I used to think we were best friends. I grew up in these vast spaces and I thought that I could do anything. I just didn’t know why I couldn’t do it this way.”

Engaged in literal netting ops in Alaska. Photo courtesy of Kylie Manning.

As for how the sea factors into her work, she explained, “The water is lawless, and if I am painting boldly and bravely the viewer can feel that the stakes are really high in the painting. Only then are the paintings successful and exciting for the viewer.”

When Christiana Ine-Kimba Boyle, the global director of online sales at Pace, first saw Manning’s work, she noticed how it defied convention. “It’s this beautiful amalgamation of figuration and abstraction, and it didn’t seem like she was trying to sort of teeter between the two,” Ine-Kimba Boyle told me.

For a painter like Manning, a chance to define her own space—and to show large-format pieces at Pace—is the stuff of dreams. Her reverence for the opportunity is checked only by the very people and places she says gave her the wherewithal to transcend outmoded expectations of gender, scale, or pretense in the art world and beyond.

One of those individuals was her mother, who died in 2017 but left an indelible mark. “Although she was sweet and kind, she didn’t take any shit from anyone and didn’t hide her opinions the way many women her age were taught to,” Manning said. “That power—that undeniable force—was the backbone of my capacity to never quit when it seemed the cards were stacked against Me.”

SHIPWRECKS, 2018, ink on paper, 10 × 14 inches, courtesy of Kylie Manning.

Oil, Water, Craftwork

In 1986—just three years after Manning was born—the price of oil tanked, leaving the petro-dependent state of Alaska in financial ruin. Lawmakers reduced civic budgets, which meant a number of public-school teachers were given pink slips. Manning’s dad, only one year into his career as a high school art teacher, was furloughed with the expectation that he’d be rehired in a few years.

“We had just bought a minivan, and I said, ‘Let’s do a road trip and go to Mexico for the year,’” he recalls from the open-air living room of their Sayulita house. “Marianne thought I was crazy.” Having learned to surf in the cold, stormy waters of his home state of Oregon, he saw it as a chance to escape south of the border. He managed to convince his wife to let him strap boards to the top of the van.

The yearlong excursion allowed the entire clan to get very comfortable with life on the road and in the ocean. “It was a pain in the ass to take little kids into cheap hotels in Mexico, so we got really good at setting up tents,” remembers Tom. “All the kids got into surfing, including Kylie. She’d be on my neck when I was on the board. That year we went down one coast and up the other.” 

SQUALL (detail), 2021, oil on linen, 72 × 72 inches, courtesy of Pace Gallery.

The Mannings eventually returned to Alaska when Tom was rehired as a teacher. Still, the desire to surf often led them back to Mexico in the following years. During longer stays, the Mannings would enroll the kids in local schools, and in 1993 the family bought property on the beach in Sayulita, where they slowly built the home we’re presently sitting in.

“It showed the many ways they didn’t subscribe to boxes and rules,” Manning says of her parents’ decision. “They thought the family was blossoming. Maybe it looked odd to outsiders, but why not come here?” 

Life spread between Alaska and Mexico made for a world rich in culture, language, and geography, from which Manning would begin to draw while she honed her skills as both a painter and a surfer. As she grew and immersed herself in both interests, she also found herself drawn to more-practical endeavors on the water. She worked as a deckhand on commercial boats for five summer seasons, fishing for southeast Alaska salmon, oftentimes the only woman on board.

This series of jobs and experiences—aided by her surfer’s knowledge of the ocean—gave Manning both the financial stability and the inspiration to keep painting. “I remember thinking, Holy shit, how do I pay my bills doing this? That’s when my athleticism and my love of the water all sort of fused and made sense. I was a natural on a boat.”

HALASSOPHILE (detail), 2022, oil on linen, 74 × 96 inches, courtesy of Pace Gallery.

Her summers at sea immersed her in long hours, natural scapes, and characters that gave her artistic fodder for many of her quintessential works. Today, much of the press she’s garnered for her paintings focuses on the abstraction of gender and human form, relating it to queerness or the creation of ambiguous structures as a function of activism or protest. What’s also at play, however, are the ways in which humans, especially in spaces where they’re up against extreme elements—such as far out at sea on a commercial fishing boat—are often clad with tools and garments that force visual abstraction.

For instance, rubber rain boots or a baggy raincoat can completely obscure the very things that signify gender or physical capability, in spaces that often require extreme physicality—or default to a masculine version of it. Ambiguity of gender was crucial in life at sea as a matter of safety for Manning, her gear often shielding her from the elements—and from the judgment of men on the other boats. “The sense of being protected by gender-obscuring clothing in a male-dominated space made me feel safe on the water and informed my way of seeing the world,” she says. Ironically, these paradoxes are a hallmark of her painting and allow the observer to see her brushstrokes in a way that diffuses gender.

To make her value as a mariner unquestionable, Manning later obtained a license for operating 500-ton commercial vessels, such as whale-watching tour boats. “The hardy seamen in the classes with me were completely shocked someone like me would be there,” she says. Eventually, fishing and running boats provided her the seasonal means and the time to earn undergraduate degrees at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and a master’s degree from the New York Academy of Art.

“I don’t think I know anyone who has a master captain’s license and a master’s in fine art,” she says.

Unmistakable Break

Manning and her father adhere to a typical on-the-program surf cycle during my time with them in Mexico: They rise early each day, check the report, exchange messages with friends along the coast, and roll out shortly afterward. They’re usually gone by 6 a.m. and typically home by 11, in time to check emails and carefully plot whatever comes next. Then they’re back in the water by midafternoon, sometimes followed by a sunset session.

Between surfs, Manning is clearly relieved that she’s already sent her work to Los Angeles. Sitting with her, I remember how, in New York, she had looked forward to this moment. “Once I ship these paintings,” she said at the time, “I’m going right to the beach.”

On the second-to-last day in Sayulita, we’re all in the open-air living room of the house. “Pace just announced the dates of my show,” Manning says, looking up from her phone. She’d known this day was coming, but had spent the past few months imagining all the ways her big break in the art world might somehow fall through.

OTTER ROCK, 2019, oil on canvas, 16 × 20 inches, courtesy of Kylie Manning.

“I feel like Lars from Lars and the Real Girl and no one is willing to tell me that I’ve just made it all up,” she says, referring to a 2007 film about a man whose friends struggle to help him see that the woman he has fallen in love with is actually a plastic doll. “It’s hard to believe it because this never really happens.”

Watching the press releases, emails, and social media reposts roll in, her face begins to lighten and the noticeably cautious optimism she’d displayed in the previous days melts away. In three weeks, her art will be on display in Los Angeles, at a globally renowned gallery, for everyone to see. Ultimately, each and every piece will be sold by the show’s opening—but she doesn’t yet know that at this moment.

Father-daughter session in Mex. Photo by Alex Patrick.

She looks at her husband, who stood by her as she took service jobs to make ends meet and who was always posted up on the beach to make sure she had a cold—or, when needed, warm—drink during her surf sessions at the Rockaways. She looks at her father, who put her on his back as he surfed more than 35 years ago, making her think that riding waves was elemental and that anything was possible. She looks at me, who has known her since those early days in Alaska, before life became so real and prematurely took her mother from her. Then she looks to the ocean, sits back, and just takes a beat.

“I still can’t believe I didn’t ever quit,” she says. “I had no reason to believe I’d ever catch a break like this.” It all makes sense that this moment is happening here in Sayulita, in the place where she learned to deftly read the water, jockeying with packs of men, paddling for what seemed like forever to catch a break that was unmistakably hers.

Manning, in studio, courtesy of Pace Gallery.

[Feature Image Caption: THE PLACES WE ONCE CALLED HOME (detail), 2022, oil on linen, 72 × 96 inches, courtesy of Pace Gallery]