Recently I was reading a second-hand book. Some pages were heavily marked with an intricate system of crosses, dots and underlinings; others were bare. As I went along, I became increasingly aware that other eyes had graced these pages, that my attention was as often cued by the interpretations of my predecessor as they were by my own reading.
I had a similar sensation at Rita Ackermann’s recent exhibition of collages. In many ways this feeling of double-vision is implicit in such art: composite by nature, collages are accumulations of found images, words and objects whose meanings are shifted by the placement and juxtaposition given to them by the artist. In looking at a collage, the viewer is necessarily drawn into the act of their making; as one attempts to decode and decipher, the irrefutable act of selection is brought to the fore. Spanning 13 years, this mini-retrospective offered multiple opportunities to creep inside the mind of this insightful, sexy and politically attuned female artist, known for casting a wide artistic net. Painter, draftsman, musician and performer, Ackermann has always incorporated a variety of media, frequently in collaboration with other artists. But collage is in many ways the most expressive and organic way to bring together her myriad interests.
The works were installed in chronologically linked clusters, with one large wall drawing, Cross (2005), forming the backdrop to groups of collages and enhancing the sensation that the gallery was structured like an assemblage. Ackermann’s earliest works are generally spare, flat and focused, but she seems to have grown more audacious with the passing years. Clipped texts lifted from the New York Times often provide a guiding theme, as in But He Still Isn’t Happy (1994), which depicts several of the artist’s nymphets (seen regularly in paintings of the early to mid-1990s) with newspaper copy ‘bubbles’ about ‘bustbooster’ bras, weddings and the like. In the foreground a young woman is depicted with downcast eyes and legs akimbo, the work’s deadpan title floating beside her head.
Six substantial pieces from 1996 were based on Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (King Ubu, 1896), the notoriously Absurdist play championed by the Surrealists and Dadaists for its grotesque depictions of modern life. Ackermann’s vivid explorations of Jarry’s scatology, with predominantly monochrome compositions that range from muddy browns to garish fuchsias, bind text, image and paint into visual explosions that mark a turning-point in her exploration of a medium in which she can tackle wider historical and societal issues head-on. Later compositions are heady and complicated, infused with colour and rife with layered references. Further, Ackermann demonstrates her love for riotous exhibitionism and theatrical behaviour, suggesting that she uses collages to cut, paste and rearrange perceptions and cultural assumptions.
In the various versions of With No Roots Behind Them (1997 and 1998) Ackermann returned to the theme of adolescence, but with even less inhibition and fewer pretty finishes. Snoopy stickers spouting pithy truisms such as ‘you’re a winner’ pair with magazine cut-outs of preening models turned awkwardly pubescent by the artist’s graffiti-like alterations (frizzy hair and Coke-bottle eye-glasses). Nearby was ‘Levitation of the Strong American Woman’, a series from 2001 in which mail-order catalogue models lie directly on top of her own daughter’s drawings on sugar paper. The juxtaposition demonstrates a sudden shift from adolescence to womanhood and the attendant anxiety of the female teen morphing into the constrained uniformity of the casually business-attired adult, while addressing the wider question of how one defines individuality against the tide of consumables. It reveals a particularly intimate side of Ackermann, providing an alternative to the brash, sassy alter egos of the early paintings, and suggests that collage is a private tool for moving from one creative stage to the next.
In Ackermann’s world men are felt mainly by their absence, rendered via the particular female experiences – including neurosis, compulsion and ridicule – that mirror how women are perceived by men. One fantastic work, Rabbit, the Clown (2000), illustrates their place in her cosmos: out of the back of a clown-cum-cowboy protrudes the ass of a bull, head turned towards the viewer, all yearning and doe-eyed. Simultaneously the saviour and the sap, he is ultimately just the buffoonish stud. Rendered directly onto a saccharine rainbow poster (bought at a hobby shop), the work comes from a series done in Texas, where kitschy country culture finds its muse. Kim Gordon compared Ackermann’s escape from the suffocating New York art world to Paul Gauguin’s years in Tahiti (the Post-Impressionist’s women, incidentally, find their way into one collage), and it is true there is a quality of uninhibited freedom, accessible to the distanced vantage point of the outsider, that she translates into richly alluring and sometimes horrific compositions. What is evident from the most recent work – a pair of lurid fluorescent silhouettes referencing the capricious Leigh Bowery – is that Ackermann continues to play in the shadows and to delight in new visual spaces.