BY Carl Freedman in Reviews | 11 SEP 95
Featured in
Issue 25

Rita Ackermann

BY Carl Freedman in Reviews | 11 SEP 95

We all live alone, facing ourselves at every waking moment as well as in dreams. The crazy, surreal, inhuman world of the fragmented city gives little chance for escape from the solipsistic prison. Fear, distrust, envy and desire reflect off every surface. Paranoia sets in. Against this backdrop of cultural malaise comes the work of Rita Ackermann.

The new paintings and drawings use Ackermann's familiar expressionistic cartoon style: a conflation of Pop's ready assimilation and the subconscious resonances associated with gestural spontaneity. Figures are overlaid in one-frame dramas, acting out tales of urban alienation and existential angst. Modelled on her own strange beauty, the multiple characters are drawn as cute pubescent innocents. Emphasising vulnerability, often half-dressed or naked, they suggest a precocious Lolita-like sexuality. Yet it's an uncertain innocence, more like the memory of something past.

Ackermann uncouples herself from any single persona through a form of self-estrangement, implying that to negate the self is the only way to find it and affirm its true paradoxical nature. In the foreground of Are You Sure You Want to See This (all works 1995), stands a figure with plaintive face and bared torso exposing an array of knife-wound-sized stigmata. A Greek chorus of externalised clones respond with gestures of repulsion and distress, yet a curiosity to touch. The source of the small bleeding gashes, violent marks of defilement and pain, is not made clear. Perhaps they're self-inflicted punishment, or symbolic evidence that growing self-consciousness is both a danger and a disease. Be Careful... You Gonna Fall warns of those inevitable dangers. A naked girl plays wildly on a swing ­ the thrill of pushing higher and higher risking a fall from grace ­ as another figure cries out and tumbles downwards, arms outstretched, into a blackened void.

A couple of the new works indicate that Ackermann is moving towards a more resolved figuration and painterly technique. It's a less forgiving style, and Ackermann's whimsical touch gets drowned out in And Then Everything Turned in Black. Whereas the earlier naivety works as an 'unaffectedness', here it reveals a possible lack of ability. The single figure sits with a too heavy presence; the weightiness affecting a profundity, as if this is what 'serious' art should look like. Don't Leave Me Alone is far better. A naked figure sits, hands clasped, by the bedside of her counterpart who lies comatose with bandaged head. A faint outline of an anguished duplicate stands alongside. The lines and forms are delineated with varying degrees of definition, merging together in an ethereal dream-like narrative. Over the surface are black, patchy trails of finger smears, pulling at the surface of the canvas in sad desperation. Gently haunting, like a wistful Munch, it evokes an irresistible pathos.

The development of a 'cult of oneself' is as much a contemporary affliction as an act. A growing certainty of the external world's hallucinatory qualities and essential inauthenticity leads to an escalating dependency on the introspective gaze. This tendency towards inwardness and a public life which equates value with success can lead to the troubled waters of narcissistic admiration. One of Ackermann's drawings sets up a Dorian Gray scenario with a deathly figure contemplating her still youthful reflection. Its title ­ How Long You're Gonna Stare Yourself in the Mirror, Princess ­ shows Ackermann is already aware of that short step between self-knowledge and destructive self-obsession.