BY Charles LaBelle in Reviews | 11 NOV 99
Featured in
Issue 49

Annica Karlsson Rixon

BY Charles LaBelle in Reviews | 11 NOV 99

Despite the insistence of anti-conceptual critics in LA who now (perhaps dizzy with the recent international success of a handful of young local, so called 'neo-colourfieldists') discuss any beautiful two-dimensional object in terms of formalist painting, there is, in fact, a whole slew of work being made that manages to be stunning without sacrificing its sharp, idea-oriented bite. Although Conceptualism's heyday is almost 30 years behind us, (as recent historical surveys such as 'Global Conceptualism' at the Queens Museum and 'Out of Actions' at LA's MoCA have made evident) the movement has continued to manifest itself in myriad, often vital, ways. Indeed, today almost every artist's practice is, in one way or another, conceptually framed. The very decision to make anything closely resembling a colour-field painting in 1999 is, in its fundamental self-consciousness, a conceptual one. For younger artists this dichotomy - which equates Conceptual Art with academia and Formalist Art with democracy - is a non-issue, a by-product of an older, more rigidly structured paradigm. Simply skating around such obsolete notions, they manage to mix conceptual stratagems and visual purity in an effortless, blissful unity.

Annica Karlsson Rixon's recent exhibition is a perfect case in point. Visually lush, her series of large-format photographs are bright, monochromatic panels in various shades of blue, red, green, yellow and orange. Like secret agents whose cover is a seemingly benign formalism, these images send out furtive, coded messages. Look closely and their pristine surfaces give way to hundreds of imperfections - small scratches, discolorations, hazy streaks and blobby shaded areas - which lie not in the photographic print but in the subject of the image itself. The fact that the images are actually extreme close-ups taken from the doors of trucks on California's Highway I-5 is all to the point: the image is, in reality, nothing more than a vehicle for a number of other concerns and ideas.

Since 1994 Karlsson Rixon, (who is Swedish but studied in California), has used her fascination with trucking as a launching pad to explore a number of photographic genres and issues of gender, sexuality and identity. Whether making portraits of individual trucks or landscapes of the California desert framed by the narrow opening between the cab and the trailer, Karlsson Rixon's images all manage to emote a kind of yearning. There's a restless, searching quality to her work that speaks of unfulfilled desire, chance encounters and missed opportunities. Drawn to these poignant aspects of human interaction, Karlsson Rixon has found a perfect subject in the trucker's milieu. Continually moving down long stretches of highway from one distant town to another, truckers are modern-day nomads, rootless loners occupying a marginalised but necessary niche on the (literal) outskirts of society. Suspect and unsavoury, larger-than-life and highly sexualised, the popular perception of truckers veers between outlaw and working-class hero. Invariably playing a role in narratives about finding oneself (or, for that matter, about losing oneself) truckers are the embodiment of freedom and the 'Wild Frontier'. Indeed, their very realm - the open road, the West, the desert - is central to the American Dream. Forming the backdrop of Karlsson Rixon's work, this dream realm, these contradictory ideals and images, become filters through which she seeks to break down and transform standard notions of feminine sexuality.

While successful in these aims to a notable degree, there's also something pat about her pro-offered take on female sexuality. The apparent obsession with 'big rigs' and the beefy hands of the drivers (close-ups of which were included in the show) begin to feel like textbook Freud. And particular details about the process behind the work - like the fact that the artist first washes the door of the truck before photographing it - make the project seem uncomfortably close to much of the pioneering 'women's roles' work done in the early 70s. However, what ultimately saves the work from such a limiting reading is its sense of humour. Happily acknowledging all of the psychoanalytic aspects - the phallic symbols, the cleaning compulsions, the father-figures - and infusing them with a buoyancy and playfulness, Karlsson Rixon manages to deftly detour our attention to numerous other, funnier, off-beat associations.

Combining systematised strategies like Ed Ruscha's flat-footed serials or John Baldessari's performance-based musings, with elements of California 'Finish Fetish', Karlsson Rixon's photographs can be viewed as the younger, charmingly awkward sister to Catherine Opie's images of freeway overpasses. Like Opie's work, in which notions of subjectivity as a kind of fluid construction are literalised as crisp, beautiful platinum prints, Karlsson Rixon wraps ideas that are - for some - difficult to swallow, in a tasty candy coating.