On ViewHauser & Wirth
Rita Ackermann’s current show at Hauser & Wirth, Mama ’19, builds off her Brother and Sister exhibit from January 2019. An impulse to create stories about each exhibit, the works, and their titles is inevitable, but Ackermann avoids narratives. This is not a show about her mother, or being a mother, but the term “mama” helps bring the viewer into the attitude of the works by reducing any urge to hyper-intellectualize, nudging us to see them with a more intimate eye. Ackermann paints on canvases on the floor or pinned to the wall that she then demarks to put onto stretcher bars. One can still see those pencil lines around the edges, and they contribute to the paintings’ directness. Her whole approach is an impressive refutation of a technical world. The gesture of the hand, with all its imprecision, is so very human. The messiness is a surprising oasis.
One can imagine some seeing these paintings and using that old trope “my children could have done that” except of course, as always, your children likely could not have. The works’ naiveté is a semblance. Even if “it begins with a line and ends with a line,” as Ackermann writes in the catalog for the show, the lines and paint develop into a composition that isn’t simply haphazard. The four rooms of the show each hold three works with the first room providing an introduction to her approach.
Drawings in china marker or ink appear beneath layers of oil and acrylic paint. The longer one looks, the more figures and drawing ideas appear around the edges, beneath, alongside, and through the scraped and formed paint. Mama, War Wall (all works 2019) is a large painting that, at a distance, seems like a largely white canvas with some scrawls and an orange and blue blotch. Up close, small characters surface that are both delightful and terrifying. One is a too-perfect rendition of a child’s drawing with a large head, circles for eyes, and a mouth made of a straight mark crossed by a jagged line. The body disappears behind other drawings, a couple of hands, and lines connecting to other lines that have you peering in, hoping to make sense of what all is there. In Mama, White Painting, I found figures as if from a life drawing class, subway sketch-style penises, and letters that almost made words. Any discovery isn’t the point; it’s the looking that is the greatest pleasure.
The second room introduces vibrant colors. A figure appears in the lower left-hand corner of Mama, Jewish Meditation. She (in my imagination the figure was female) turns slightly, looking up and over to the right corner. Her thoughts escape in yellows and blues, oranges and greens. Ideas build in layers and reach to the very edge of the canvas. That is unusual: in other works, the paint always stops before meeting the edge. Hands and feet along the bottom seem appropriate but for no particular reason; they just fit there. Mama, Morty Smoking offers a bright conflagration of orange-yellows with globs of paint. The drawing of the horse on the right edge, next to someone riding a worm-like creature or wheeled machine, compels the imagination to connect the two. My mind went to the war scenes of the Iliad , for really no reason whatsoever, but the looseness of the artist’s handling invites viewers’ imagination. Sure, Freud could have a field day and Rorschach might adopt these works, but if one abandons psychological determination and leans into the whimsy of expressiveness, these paintings offer space for creative delight.
After all those excited hues, the third room calms. Mama, Turner shows the same misty, foggy, smoothly blended paint melding one color into the next of that great master, J. M.W. Turner. A blazing circle evokes fire and the ragged brushstrokes in the lower third become suddenly reminiscent of his Slave Ship (1840) painting. Things are not as serene as they seemed from a distance. Mama, Midsummer Night’s Dream sends the mind to Shakespeare, but the leg in heeled summer sandal in the right-hand corner also suggests those lovely and rare evenings with friends, sipping wine, laughing late, dissolving into the silliness that every midsummer encounter wants to be. Mama, Memory Spinner seems like all the stories we remember from childhood, with rapid brushstrokes adjoining line figures from every kind of folk and fairy tale. There’s a sigma notation in the upper left corner along with other not-quite-8s or infinity symbols that should but don’t produce the mathematical equations we expect. Here, you can create new stories with each viewing.
Mama, Miracle in the last room is significantly larger than the other pieces in the show, and the way Ackermann works becomes more evident. The physical evidence of her process anchors the flights of fancy she permits. In Mama, Holy Sinner, her signature appears in the lower right as well as the upper left, as if one could rotate the work. The upside-down heads at the top of the canvas (as it currently stands) could be equally right side up if one chose. There is a lightness in Ackermann’s approach that opens a mental space for breath. Thoughts can roam around the painting and float beyond it. There’s a generosity in letting the viewer experience what they will that is hard to find these days but, oh, so welcome.