New York

Rita Ackermann

Andrea Rosen Gallery

Rita Ackermann is a painter who tends to put that talent in the service of a wider, more adventurous milieu-making activity, connecting with music, fashion, and other urban scenes in order to carry sensations from one place over into another, sometimes making us rediscover what painting is along the way. One example is The Deer Slayer, the shadow-puppet theater she produced in 1997. With live narration by Kim Gordon and music by members of the No Neck Blues Band, the show—combining painting and performance, improvised sound plus changing backdrops and the illuminated figures that moved across them—seemed to be making up a strange new language on the spot. Other memorable moments include performances by her band Angelblood, her stained-glass windows at the bar Max Fish and the New Museum, an early CD-ROM animation about a lonely girl in a bathroom, and the schizo makeup she once styled for a fashion shoot using only a red ballpoint pen. Now and then there is a gallery show, and as gallery shows these hit or miss. But with “Listen to the Fool’s Reproach,” an exhibition of fourteen new oil paintings, Ackermann comes as close as ever to the intensified, art-as-good-as-drugs experience of her other, extramural activities.

A cycle of small-scale works, all painted on wood panels, ringed the room in one even row. Making various references to sources both literary (Norse mythology, Shakespeare, the Brothers Grimm, etc.) and autobiographical, Ackermann—like Fuseli or Blake (from whom she takes the show’s title)—opens up a sort of Northwest Passage between reading and painting where something very concentrated and personal is made to happen. It is not a simple question here of picturing stories but of how each painting enacts the moment of entry as a literary or mental image is actualized in the precise speeds and temperatures of paint. Presiding over this magic are Ackermann’s familiar figures with their cat eyes and small breasts—feral, pubescent quasi self-portraits reminiscent of Darger’s Vivian girls. The air blows, burns, and blooms around them: a sentimental sunset smeared on with a knife, an orange bonfire erupting in Actionist impasto, an inexplicably derailed brushstroke slicing the gray green of a room where two girls slump at a table. Furniture takes on a fleshy urgency when six or eight stabs of color converge as one nervous table leg. And, depending on the scene, the girls’ flesh is sometimes corpse blue in a polished piano’s reflection, clotted and dull in the cloister of a hospital waiting room, or Shiseido smooth in the case of one spectacular ass that spreads the canvas with its pristine pallor. If the girls’ bodies seem pulled out of rivers, flames, or fairy tales, the scenes they inhabit are occasions for collaging Goya disasters with Manet hats, Munch forests with Asger Jorn freakouts. A single painting is worked fast and slow, thin and thick, opening itself to a multiplicity of effects that matches the diversity of tales being told even in one image.

Ackermann has been showing for over a decade, continually putting painting into variation with other nonpainterly perceptions and sensations. Once again, her new work has the freshness, crafty intuition, and stylistic uninhibitedness of an upstart—seeming to suddenly come back into phase with a moment she set the tone for back when kids were buying her drawings on album covers and T-shirts.

John Kelsey