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Creative Corner

Universal Turf: Peter Manion


Universal Turf: Peter Manion

World Chess Hall of Fame

Written by Erin McGrath Rieke

Peter Manion’s never before seen site specific sculptural works were revealed to the public at the World Chess Hall of Fame’s opening reception of Universal Turf on the unseasonably warm evening of October 5, 2018.  This reception, which brought in the largest number of guests to an opening at the museum, offered what could be perceived to be the combined examination of psychological introspection and flow technique to the creation of art and how it relates to the game of chess. 

Universal Turf is housed in the first floor gallery of the World Chess Hall of Fame’s three floor building. One enters the first floor gallery space through a door and as the scope of the room expands, the viewer is immediately stopped by facing the imposing Aye, a black plaster and felt installation. In close proximity, Aye is overwhelming and intimidating. The work has lines and tiny breaks within the depths of the plaster. But this monster piece (the largest individual work created by Manion to date) curls at the ends, and while ominous, it is merely a symbol. In creating Aye, Manion hoped to represent the simplicity of a chess board, with it’s intersecting lines, but he also hoped to suggest the scientific neurological pathways that are created in one’s mind when playing the game of chess. 


Within the twists and turns created by the gallery walls, the viewer is given the opportunity to move through the mind of Peter Manion and his process. Stepping away from Aye as the chess board, one’s eyes are drawn to three casually tacked up mixed media works that run along the right wall of the gallery. (Sketchbook Yellow, Sketchbook Red, Sketchbook Blue) These three mixed media pieces invite the viewer to visit Manion’s past, present, and future. 

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In the Sketchbook Yellow, Sketchbook Red, and Sketchbook Blue, the viewer can see Manion’s internal struggle to move away from his previous process of creating for external purposes and his move towards internal reflection and artistic freedom. Each mixed media piece suggests an inner struggle, perhaps a reflection of Manion’s early creative years when he says he often found himself producing artwork that appealed to what he felt he should be creating and his sense of what his art should be. In the details of the mixed media works, the hand written notes, and the almost forced mark making, the viewer soaks up the sense of a distinct perception of a specific objective, with great attention to detail. The base of each of the Sketchbook works show Manion’s past: a focus on his external perception of what he once was through his own perception and memory. However, the prominent element of each Sketchbook piece embraces Manion’s future: his bold use of colors: (yellow, red, blue ) drowning out all that once was and leading the viewer to the center of the exhibit: the Elementals.

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Elementals are a cluster of brightly colored, abstract formed sculptures set on pedestals of varying heights in the center of the main gallery that could be interpreted as pawns within the game of chess. Each one of these sculptures are created from materials Manion used many years ago when he was working in construction. The shapes presented in the show seem static and set, but by design they are movable and can be easily reshaped or even fall at any given moment, much like a pawn.


It is at this point in the gallery, the viewer finds  Protector (Blue), C (Yellow), and Cut and Paste the Truth (Pink), which represent the Bishop, the Queen, and the King on the Chess board. Each of these stunning sculptures are conceptually opposing visually. They appear dense, heavy and solid and yet equally fragile and complicated. The sculptures seem to be scarcely intact as they lean on Manion’s old OSB construction boards and drape on the gallery floor.  Yet the sculptures are each a manifestation of Manion’s newfound simplicity in creation, but infinitely strong like the power pieces on the chess board. Combined from plaster, felt and dye imported from India, Manion leaves behind his traditional work methods and eliminates the use of brushes and paint. In his sculptural work, he strips away his perception of what it means to create, and he becomes one with his work in an almost meditative state by creating something entirely new.  Peter Manion accomplishes this feat by letting go of his ego, getting out of the way of what the material wants to do, what the work wants to be, and he allows the pieces to evolve. This is often referred to as the “Flow Technique,” and it is uniquely found in the work of creatives.


“Flow Technique” is a psychological state where an individual is fully engaged and absorbed in a process. “Flow” can be achieved while creating art or while playing chess. When viewers enter the last room of the gallery, Peter Manion’s complete emersion in his art, his “flow,” is fully realized in his large scale site specific installation piece Universal Truth. A series of plaster and felt pieces are tacked together on floor to ceiling OSB boards which wrap around three walls of the room. Wildly brilliant and awe-inspiring colored India dye is sprayed onto the textured pieces of plaster and felt that cover the walls inviting viewers to run their hands across the art. Mildly contrasting the vibrancy of Universal Truth is the all white plaster work Make Your Move which stands alone, quiet and stoic, directly across from the wall-to-wall colorful powerhouse. End of Something, another stand alone plaster work, once molded as a sculpture, sprayed with multicolored India dye and then flattened, is tacked to the wall of the main room which visually ties the entire exhibit together.


The exhibit title Universal Turf is a variation from Universal Truth. However, as Peter Manion stated,“There is no actual universal truth. We all have our own version of the truth. So we focused on universal and then focused on turf, because turf is organic. Turf is tangible. And we wanted this [exhibit] to be approachable and tangible for people.”

The worlds of art and chess are often presumed to be unapproachable and intangible to many. Abstract art often leaves viewers with more questions than answers. “What is this? What does this mean?” Ironically, chess is a game rich in tradition with a clear beginning and end. Chess has two opponents, a thick list of rules, and a distinct winner and loser at the end. The question that begs to be answered is who will win?


When one walks through Universal Turf, eyes are opened to a new way of thinking about art and chess. One does not have to be a grandmaster to understand or participate in art or chess. Peter Manion’s Universal Turf lets us see that by releasing expectations of ourselves and abandoning our presumed limitations, we can let go, focus, observe, think and consider endless options and possibilities. By opening ourselves up to new experiences, we can get past our fears and no longer find things intimidating or unapproachable. Universal Turf gives each viewer the opportunity to believe that we have the power to do anything-we can be a grandmaster.

Erin McGrath RiekeComment