BY Julian Myers in Reviews | 03 MAR 03
Featured in
Issue 73

Nick Ackerman

Nick Ackerman, Lizabeth Oliveria Gallery, San Francisco, USA

BY Julian Myers in Reviews | 03 MAR 03

'Graphic Novel' (2002) is the first instalment of Nick Ackerman's painted version of the end of days. Its visionary imagination is expansive, à la Matthews Ritchie and Barney: Ackerman means to depict every stage of an enormous cosmic meltdown. There are hundreds of images already, but as yet their repertoire is restricted to a few compulsively repeated motifs. A tiny village in the centre of a prairie is menaced by lightning and brightly coloured squares; a balloon crashes improbably into a lake; soap-bubble clouds billow from the corners of a stylized mountain range. The work is divided into small-scale, frantic drawings and larger, more plainly organized paintings.

In the sketches Ackerman elaborates the characters and structure of the apocalypse, and allows the iconography to multiply and slip in and out of its tightly defined role in the larger narrative. Pages are filled with proliferating cubes and cancellations, handwritten directives, rambling arguments about how many stages this imaginary apocalypse should rightfully have, pie charts showing exactly how much of the world would be destroyed by which apocalyptic phenomena, etc. The larger paintings eschew this anxious figuring and are more legible as 'artworks', but mounted among the Byzantine worry of the sketches the cartoon clarity of the 'finished' works quickly unravels. Chaos is visible between the lines. The effect evokes both a grubby outsider cosmology and the product of a bored office worker savouring fantasies of mass destruction by plotting them out in a spreadsheet programme. On the one hand, its fantasy world is on the verge of spinning dangerously out of control, cubes and clouds teetering on the edge of sheer obsession; on the other, the project seems too repetitive to be truly bizarre. These are representations of a fantasy space completely under control of the mind that dreamed it up.

The limits of this apocalyptic imagination are fascinating. The title of the show - a glorified name for comic books invented in a fit of hubris in the late 1980s - would seem to gesture towards some overarching story legible in the works, but impenetrable tables of contents aside, its narrative is brief. A battle is on. A small village, complete with church and steeple, is under threat from various plagues and disasters, which appear in these artworks in iconic or cartoon form. A rainbow-stripe balloon floats above a lake, and then crashes and is submerged in it. This narrative is simple, and deeply nostalgic. Not for nothing are the main colours of the exhibition the faded complements of 1970s childhood: flat pink and tan, magenta, blue and flesh-tone. And there is another, more discomfiting nostalgia implicit in Ackerman's use of the 'village': this 'home on the range' can't help but invoke, in the current political context, a certain odious mythos about small-town America, one dreamed up by conservative culture as a repository of 'American values'. It's a myth of the American right, one that dreams phantasmagoric threats to this so-called traditional America from without, from the bad modernity of the (implicitly racialized) city on the one side, and from 'Islamic fundamentalists' on the other. Ackerman's evocation of a conservative nightmare is ambiguous enough to be unsettling. Its ambiguity is, however, mitigated in important ways. First, his version of this emblematic small town is obviously a caricature, fake, and visibly drained of its nostalgic value. But moreover, and more importantly, 'Graphic Novel' doesn't idealize this myth so much as revel in its endless crisis. Hence the best work in the show is not the cartoony material, but the sketches and paintings that verge on dizzying abstraction - as if the transgressive charge of imagining the repeated obliteration of this town unleashed an apoplectic, psychedelic freakout.

In From the Cracks of Earth (2002) a squadron of lightning bolts swarms as a soapy flood bubbles toward the puny town - needless to say, we seem to be positioned on the side of the deluge. And in several drawings the formal devices seem to come completely unhinged from the apocalypse thing. Writhing Rococo paisleys, gnarly, veined blobs, baffled smears, perspectival squares, spiral clouds of notations, lamps and potted plants babble in a sublime Day-Glo glossolalia only incidentally related to the graphic novel's plot. To quote one of Ackerman's poignant/weird self-reflections, scrawled across a drawing: 'What's the point of the squares/that's what everything is made of/who needs a point or reason?'

Julian Myers is an art historian based in San Francisco. He is an assistant professor at California College of the Arts.