Philip Akkerman

Johnen + Schöttle

Philip Akkerman’s 30 self-portraits pose numerous problems: what lies behind the scenario of one’s own portrait? Is it perhaps a philosophical model of the presentation of the artistic self? Or, through art, an unrestrained exercise of ego? Or a serious contemplation on the essence of existence? Or, perhaps, is it a certain freedom inherent to this genre of art, through which the artist can become the impresario of his or her own appearance?

Though Akkerman’s self-portraits range from 1981 to 1992, they share a common trait: in all of them, the artist makes eye contact with the viewer. Akkerman’s painting could be called “bad” as easily as it could becalled “good”: there is a certain coarseness in his drawing style, a bombast in presentation, a grimness of the face, all of which give these portraits an almost repulsive quality. What we have here is a conceptual mode. Every day, or almost every day, since 1981, Akkerman has painted a self-portrait. One finds a clumsiness in his technique in the early works, a more refined touch in the later ones. Since 1986, he has used a single approach; these serial images are not traditional portraits but embody modern devices such as reduction or variation, and a balance among production, reproduction, and overproduction. Still, Akkerman uses some traditional techniques. He starts, for example, with two sketches—an outline sketch on white paper and a shadow sketch on dark paper.

Art and life are combined in Akkerman’s work somewhat as they are in Hanne Darboven’s or On Kawara’s. The difficulty of his project is less of esthetics than of content: to give oneself a different face every day suggests an obsessive, self-punishing severity. Given the portrait’s usual role as a vehicle of bourgeois identity, this puts Akkerman in danger of stripping himself of social context. In his confrontation with his own portrait, the artist succeeds in controlling his own development—but what else?

This one may answer by examining the way in which Akkerman displays his works. Through their sheer accumulation, the portraits destroy the supposed individuality of their genre. Thus they bring the question of social relevance to the fore, asking the viewer whether every human being is an individual or whether, like Akkerman, we are simply virtual clones of our own images.

Norbert Messler

Translated from the German by Charles V. Miller