In an illustration for Esquire magazine, steam from a cup of tea rises then climbs as the vines of a ylang-ylang tree, while the grid-like window and the no-nonsense coving around the corner of the ceiling and doorframes mute this magical transformation, bringing us back down to earth.
The Clarity and Mystery of Manshen Lo
Manshen Lo is a London-based visual artist whose realistic line work has been commissioned for the likes of The New Yorker, New York Times, MTV and many more, including The Poetry Review. No wonder; the incisiveness of her lines and the exactitude of her palette collude to deliver a succession of charged moments which arrive Ezra Poundishly, all ‘faces in the crowd / Petals on a wet, black bough.’
"In terms of narrative, I don’t consider it from a storytelling point of view, but more an immersive moment that suggests a length of the past and future. Like a very long second"
Elsewhere, a woman with a white watering can is glimpsed through a glass door while her long shadow points towards a white suitcase parked inside her neat apartment. Simple enough. The woman must be going on a trip – is she the sort of person who packs far enough in advance to be able to potter about the garden? Or perhaps she just come back from somewhere? Then again, maybe not. Would you water your plants before unpacking? Do these questions make you feel lonely or calm?
When you consider the intended context of this image (the suitcase company RIMOWA commissioned this illustration for use on social media and in-store billboards, to appeal to the ever-on-the-move business traveller) it’s all the more extraordinary that Lo carves out such mystery, stillness and quietude. Meanwhile, the exposed brick wall divides the scene in two, as if weighing up its own proposition (suitcase, left, inside / woman, right, outside) like Lady Justice, suspending judgement. All these qualities give such scenes the vibe of delicious, slow-burn television.
‘I appreciate that you read the slow-burn side of my work!’ said Lo. Does she consider narrative when she’s working? ‘In terms of narrative, I don’t consider it from a storytelling point of view, but more an immersive moment that suggests a length of the past and future. Like a very long second.’
That may be so, yet Lo was commissioned to illustrate the cover of this year’s bestselling fiction novel, adding to the productive ambivalence of narrative or lack thereof in her work. ‘Faber Publishing house and the legendary book designer Jon Grey got in touch last year about this secret project that required an NDA because it was a book cover for a big name’, Lo explained. ‘I just read Normal people and watched the TV adaption by the BBC not long ago, so Sally Rooney’s name jumped into my head instantly. Later I was thrilled to find out it was her new book Beautiful World, Where Are You.’
"East Asian art is characterised by lines that are different from European comics – bristly edges, the organic thick and thin, and steady yet vigorous energy, descended from Chinese traditional calligraphy"
In a review, fellow novelist Anne Enright said of Rooney’s style, ‘This is prose you either get or don’t get; for some it is incisive, for others banal. Which makes me wonder if it is so clean, it reflects the readers’ prejudices right back at them.’ Here, you could swap prose for illustration, sentences for lines, and easily be describing Lo’s sharpness and clarity – but does the artist think she and Rooney share an aesthetic? ‘I believe so, or I should say, I feel the connection on my part when reading her sentences – they are full of emotions and energy, but designed to be released in a slow and controlled way.
‘Her ability to pick up those tiny moments – what we noticed but couldn’t put our fingers on – and recount them so precisely, in an elegant flow, is what impressed me the most. These are what I strive for in my work too.’
Where does this close attention to the elegant flow of lines come from? From a European perspective, Lo’s work seems to advance the tradition of Ligne Claire, pioneered by Hergé, the Belgian creator of The Adventure of Tintin.
‘Although I talked about Ligne-Claire a lot, its influence on me is only about how lines are engineered and how clarity is preserved within a visual system. I’d like to think my lines are Chinese’, Lo said. ‘East Asian art is characterised by lines that are different from European comics – bristly edges, the organic thick and thin, and steady yet vigorous energy, descended from Chinese traditional calligraphy.
‘“One should feel the brush penetrating the paper without breaking it to make a good line” is an old saying I grew up with.’
Drawing on a rich tradition of calligraphy which emulates natural forms and seeks to reconcile them with human concerns, perhaps it’s surprising that Lo has taken as her principle theme contemporary, urban life. But in fact, it’s this tussle between the everyday demands of modern cities and a more intuitive way of being that gives her work its deep sense of longing.
Beautiful world, where are you?
By Sammi Gale