By JEFF GRUNTHANER, MAR. 2015
Hungarian-born artist Rita Ackermann is a painter of ideas. While her visual lexicon is known to draw from an iconography attendant on consumerism and spectacle, she doesn't simply reflect branded modes of imagery so much as re-cast them in her own terms. Figures of negation are essential to this, and have held a singular place in her work since she first brandished the destructiveness of artificial needs through her gorgeously lithe but ultimately featureless nymphs of the 1990's. Shading into near total transparence, these doll-like creatures are silhouettes in dishabille, drawn to bitch life's boredom with cartoon mouths shaped by a single vertical line or smudge of black ink. On the occasion of her recent show at Hauser & Wirth in Zurich, I asked Ackermann about the conceptual underpinnings of her latest body of work– "Chalkboard paintings" –and how they might relate to her paintings both prior and to come.
Jeffrey Grunthaner: I’m interested in how your Chalkboard paintings relate to a previous body of work: "Fire by Days." Both seem to emphasize a sensation of process rather than a painted surface revealing figures. Am I right about this?
Rita Ackermann: These two bodies of work have little relation. Even if, as you mention, they are both built by a particular concept of process and the figure is a trackable element in them, the chalkboard painting series connects to an earlier but recently revisited series that I’ve been working on since 1996: the ballpoint pen paintings. I've been coming back, from time to time, to the concept of disappearance through transparence in my paintings, layering image on top of another image—not for aesthetic results, but for the sake of mobility. It’s almost as if the painting is being put to movement. This is not a direct goal I have to arrive at with my paintings, but rather intuitive. I notice myself ending up with this wish of making moving images within the painting and eventually to represent the non-representable. Does this make any sense? I hope not!
JG: Perhaps but do you conceive of these pictures as erasures?
RA: Yes, these works are made by multiple erasures. What happens through the making is exactly what happens on a chalkboard in a classroom. A configuration or drawing is rendered on the black or green board; then it gets cleaned up for the next class. Since I apply the chalkboard paint on canvas first, they must be stretched on the wall. The erasures are forceful and physical. I discovered that sometimes the more manic the erasure is, the more visible the drawing becomes underneath the layers of washed-away chalk dust. A considerably "un-noble" material's fragility and modesty— the chalk—turns out to be the greatest resistance.
JG: To what extent are you revisiting or redacting earlier works? Your “nymphs,” for example, which are almost iconic at this point?
RA: Those early drawings haunted me all through my career. If I look at them as illustrative figurations they upset me and make me embarrassed to the extent that I want to destroy them all. On the other hand, I can't remember the last time they meant anything more than lines to me. They are great lines to use for destruction in order to re-construct them into something completely new.
JG: Where are the titles of the Chalkboard paintings coming from?
RA: The titles directly refer to the color and the action. There were times when I looked to poetry or Virilio’s writings for titles, but not in this case.
JG: Is there a certain kind of content that feels especially appropriate for erasure?
RA: I have already said something about an ongoing investigation into the concept of the "aesthetic of disappearance" in a previous response. But I should also say that the simplest, most banal ideas and materials can lead me to the most evolved complexities in my work. For over two years, I have been working on these paintings with chalk and wet sponge and they are still exciting to me. And I must say that I get bored easily.
JG: Can you describe the gestation of the Chalkboard paintings? Does this process diverge from previous series of works?
RA: Each painting must be treated as one gesture. I can't and never could work in details. If one part of the painting is messed up, I have to remake the entire surface with the next gesture, otherwise it feels like cheating. One take means everything or nothing, like in Russian roulette. And sometimes, for days and weeks, I can't tell if a painting is dead or still alive.
JG: I feel like there’s an apocalyptic tone to these works, a sort of end-of-painting vibe. Do you think about the current state of painting or where it’s likely to go?
RA: Ultimately, I’m here working in painting and trying to bring out the best from it. What everybody else is doing is not my problem. The last thing I want to spend my time on is judging the current state of painting. I want to spend time figuring out what I’m doing with my work. WM
Jeffrey Grunthaner is a writer & artist currently based in Berlin. Essays, articles, poems & reviews have appeared via BOMB, artnet News, The Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergic, Louffa Press, Drag City Books, & other venues. Recent curatorial projects include the reading & discussion series Conversations in Contemporary Poetics at Hauser & Wirth, West 22nd Street (NY).view all articles from this author