For Peter Manning, you could say that making the transition from an art appreciator to a working artist was a natural progression.
In the U.K., Manning was working as creative director at Reluctant Hero in Newcastle, a design studio. In the meantime, he also headed up the Electrik Sheep gallery, putting on shows by noted street artists like Eine and Banksy.
One day, he and Marc Ross — who was also working at Manning's day gig — had a sort of eureka moment. "We kind of had maybe a little bit of hubris," he says. "But it was like, 'We could probably do this ourselves.'"
That's when the artist collective Prefab77 was born.
We speak to Manning during a break at the basement studio at Detroit's Inner State Gallery, which Prefab77 have temporarily taken over for a two-week artists residency.
Manning describes the group dynamics as a true collaboration. "We work on the concept together, we work on the image together," he says. "Marc has got a lot of the back end stuff — the prep, execution. Mine's a lot of the art, and the concept."
The fruits of the Detroit residency — a collaboration between Manning, Ross, and the Inner State Gallery's in-house printmaker — will be display in a one-day exhibition at the gallery on Friday.
Manning says street art-style imagery has long been a passion of his. In the '90s, he lived in Manhattan, working as a graphic designer. It was there that he recalls witnessing the street art scene.
"Seeing all the Shepard Fairey, and Faile, and Bäst and I was like, 'This is fucking cool, I want be part of this,'" he says. "We sniffed around the edges a bit for a while, and now I just want to get straight into the whole street world, and just do it full time."
While in New York, Manning worked as a graphic designer for various fashion brands, which explains the origins of much of Prefab77's imagery. A collage of fashion-style photography mixed with historical elements, the group's bold imagery has landed gigs working on commercial art for high-profile commercial projects for clients like Nike, Ride Snowboards, Gap, Keds, Hurley, Converse, and more.
But Manning describes the group's current body of work as a new direction. "A lot of the stuff we were doing was very iconographic — British iconography which is like, the queen, the crown exploding, and stuff like that," he says. "It's all carried over but it's culminated in a love of history, a love of art history, allegories, and bringing some of that stuff in."
The resulting imagery is at once medieval and contemporary. Manning says the idea was to try to tap into imagery from the past and repurpose it. "Way back when I was like, maybe what we should do is if we're going to go down a bit more of a graphic route, let's bring some of this stuff back in, in a different form," he says.
But he says the imagery has a personal meaning as well. "I love history," Manning says. "So it's almost like as these things tell a story, it's also the story of my interests and background."
The work he and Ross are creating for their Detroit residency is a further departure in that it has a variety of final outputs. They have been working with Inner State's in-house printer Jonny Alexander to create several limited editions of various sizes. But far from being a typical mass-produced run of nearly identical prints, Manning says this body of work features hand-painted textures and other embellishments that ensure no two prints are alike.
"It's a process that you know that it should replicate and reproduce every single step," he says. "But it's not. You're not sure of the result until you actually see it — how one thing interacts with the other."
Manning says its been a challenge getting used to the jet lag and also logging in the long hours necessary to produce the work. He has managed to do some sightseeing around Detroit, saying he was intrigued to check out Midtown's new Carhartt store.
But Manning thinks the work has paid off. "People have put less effort into one original than we have in one of these prints!" he says.
Prefab77's pop-up show is from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 16 at Inner State Gallery; 1410 Gratiot Ave., Detroit; innerstategallery.com; 313-744-6505; no cover.