Los Angeles

Franz Ackermann

Thomas Solomon's Garage

Where the hell is Franz Ackermann anyway? This is the question that inevitably arises when viewing the work of this Berlin–based artist who wanders from one geographic location or cultural situation to the next, looking for new experiences, and maybe even a little meaning. If Ackermann belongs anywhere, however, it may well be in one of his small, almost hallucinatory “Mental Map” paintings, 1994–95.

Living life in the form of a continuous trip, with requisite stopovers in his native Germany, Ackermann seems to have found a degree of romance in the notion of world citizenship. In connection with his Los Angeles exhibition (entitled “properties”), the artist spent a few weeks exploring the local environment, and even used L.A.’s neglected bus system (only the city’s disenfranchised or bold out-of-towners intent on a messy urban adventure would actually do that sort of thing). But from this artist’s delightfully skewed perspective, the world is a messy place, and he’s loath to tidy it up. Ackermann’s eccentric, almost accidentally ornamental paintings and blueprints became metaphors for this nomadic sense of place. His subjective maps aggressively decomposed the territorial order usually associated with planned suburban spaces, willfully interfering with the representational protocol of topographical systems. All of this seemed, at least in part, like an effort to obstruct any sort of stable identity, to proclaim “selfhood” as something that is entirely contingent and fluid, or just plain fugitive.

Ackermann may well thrive on those states of mental and physical disorientation that many find irksome. By courting an outsider status, he accentuates the idiosyncratic, and it is not entirely coincidental that his artistic language bears an oblique resemblance to certain kinds of “outsider art.” It goes without saying that there is a long tradition of artists and writers who have fueled their imaginations by pursuing the kind of bliss that comes from getting lost in unknown places, who have become addicted to a sense of estrangement or alienation. Wanderlust was articulated here through the filter of playfully subjective, virtually nonsensical mappings. Ackermann’s ongoing “Mental Map” series was comprised of uniformly sized acrylic on paper works with subtitles such as “my house and my garden,” “I couldn’t find a bar,” “private sector,” and “knowledge is bullshit.” Evoking that odd fusion of chance and order that we have come to associate with the paradoxical ambitions of Surrealism (particularly the automatic drawings of André Masson), Ackermann pits rationality against the irrational in an effort to articulate a subjective cartography. The built-in, self-conscious spontaneity of these small-scale, drawinglike paintings was almost claustrophobic; charged, eccentric linear elements attacked referential or recognizable shapes that could only be understood as surrogates for domiciles and other elements of social architecture.

Also included was a larger, three-part blueprint piece (Untitled: Happy Valley, 1995) comprised of two amorphous black shapes—placed on either side of a mirrored, emblematic pattern that resembled a customized Rorschach test—with roadlike lines that fed into and out of it. All of this added up to an evocation of the sublime terrors of suburban sameness. Finally, a changeable sculptural piece designed for the space, Untitled: Blind Systems, bought & stolen grapefruit (things replaceable), 1995, featured six glass rectilinear units—a few containing fruit, others empty, some closed, others invitingly open. Here, an ingenious game was set up: viewers were encouraged to rethink the ethics of property even as they contemplated filching one of the “unique” objects. Overall, Ackermann memorialized his impulse to transform uniformity into entropic disarray—a gesture that took on special meaning when you realized it was that of a drifting German witnessing the contradictory sprawl of Los Angeles.

Joshua Decter