Chicago

Roger Ackling

Rhona Hoffman Gallery

Procedure most assuredly can become its own esthetic, and Roger Ackling’s modest and absorbing sculptures are wrought from a process worth retelling. His usual working method is to roam along beaches looking for washed-up small pieces of wood that have already been formed by human hands to serve sonic function, and then left to their watery fate. Ackling rescues these wooden chips, these orphans of technology, and then determinedly employs a magnifying lens to focus the sun’s rays, “drawing” (burning) rather rigid patterns of parallel lines across their surfaces. He retrieves and reforms, creating something that seems inevitable though it is based on chance. That this bleached and desiccated flotsam and jetsam is pulled from the morass and rehabilitated into art right on the spot (Ackling has no studio) bespeaks an ennobling commitment to a kind of charged recycling—taking the lowest of the low and turning it into an esthetic delight.

Ackling walked the beaches of Weybourne (near Norfolk in England where he lives) and those of the Canary Islands to create the nine pieces in this exhibition. Not surprisingly, he retained the bits of wire or nails that are often attached to what he reaps at the shore. Some aspect of the shape of these pieces of wood, of how they had been formed for their earlier function, is often echoed or transformed by Ackling’s painstaking “tattooing.” He stripes these pieces with patience and incredible care; once his method is perceived, the image of Ackling standing immobile on the beach, slowly moving the focused and intense power of light across the surface of each sculpture suggests that this activity is a kind of modest mantra, a sparse, simple transformative magic. His sculptures receive a solar scarification that imbues them with stature, giving them order and marking their metamorphosis into art.

The journey from tree to widget to Ackling’s hand cannot be reconstructed for any of these pieces, with only their most recent history within our ken. But his intervention always calls that journey to mind. For what purpose, to what end, at what place, in whose hands, were the two pieces that make up the beginning of Canaries, 1992, formed? By not selecting “natural” driftwood, Ackling evokes the forlorn and wistful quality of these abandoned relics—their functions forever obscured and obliterated by their sojourn in the sea—the sense that they are the remnants that have always floated forgotten and unseen across the water. He stoops to pick them up, and then forever changes them. Ackling’s straightforward and open-handed gestures make metaphors of these materials.

James Yood