Philip Akkerman, Self-Portrait: 2012, No. 155, tempera and oil paint on Masonite, 51 x 47 1/4".

Philip Akkerman, Self-Portrait: 2012, No. 155, tempera and oil paint on Masonite, 51 x 47 1/4".

Philip Akkerman/Maria Chevska

Mummery + Schnelle

Philip Akkerman, Self-Portrait: 2012, No. 155, tempera and oil paint on Masonite, 51 x 47 1/4".

Despite all the new modes of artmaking that have come into play since the 1960s, the everyday work of most painters still remains much the same as it has been for centuries. Or at least that seemed to be the premise for this pairing of shows by Philip Akkerman and Maria Chevska.

Over a thirty-year career, Akkerman has been painting his face and only that, but his real subject seems to be the daily grind of his praxis. Yet while some painters have translated the repetitive nature of their medium into a more reductive or conceptual practice, in which each repetition has just a few variables—think of On Kawara, or, in a different sense, Agnes Martin—Akkerman seeks out greater extremes of variation, suggesting a more personal and subjective approach. Each of his paintings seems to espouse a different style, from a precise realism through expressionism and even to the edge of caricature. Yet a close look at his paintings reveals that he always employs a traditional grisaille method of gray underpainting over which he applies washes of color or thick dabs of paint, with, on occasion, very garish results. The exhibition’s title, “1, 2, 3,” is a clever reference to this steadfast approach, as well as to the configuration of the show: a single large painting on one wall, followed by two smaller works on another, then three on the third. Akkerman’s technique is easily visible in four of the works here, in which the paint is thin and the ground shows through; perhaps coincidentally, these are also the more realistic pieces. The biggest painting in the show, Self-Portrait: 2012, No.155, at about fifty-one by forty-seven inches, is also the artist’s largest to date. It is one of his wilder, more rambling works, in which loud groupings of varied marks and patterns just barely piece together the zones of his face. Are the paintings meant to reveal something of a particular moment in the life of the artist? Or is Akkerman like a jazzman freely improvising on an old standard? His statement “I paint myself and so I paint the whole of mankind” would seem to suggest that portraiture is for him a kind of existential declaration, and his visage an abstraction for the human face in general.

This tension between repetition and improvisation is the theme that links Akkerman’s work to that of Chevska, even if the two otherwise exhibit quite different painterly sensibilities. Chevska has long used text in her work, but her approach has changed in recent years. In the past, she had been known to lyrically paint words onto quite physically chunky, process-oriented paintings, yet lately she has turned toward a more abstract, text-free, painterly style. Selected from a new series called “From the Diary of a Fly”—a title taken from a piano piece by Béla Bartók—the paintings, as we are told in the press release, one inspired by details and colors of Russian icons, while three plinths display collaged objects made in part from Polish books that Chevska was given as a child. Just as Akkerman’s face is a structure upon which he improvises painting, it is these points of departure—the icons and book pages—that are subsumed through Chevska’s creative process.

For example, From the Diary of a Fly [Parts 1] No (IV), 2013, a black taped-up sphere with a red clothbound book tied to its top, suggests secrets kept intact. Although From the Diary of a Fly [Parts 3] No (IV), 2013, is a painting that similarly has a circular shape at its core, the architectonic gestures of Chevska’s brushstrokes create a sense of structure, while their dynamism leaves an uneasy sense of diminished focus. Here, the sharpest point of definition, amid a swirl of gestures, comes from a triangle of canvas pasted onto the surface. As suggested by the notion of the fly in the works’ titles, these flourishes create the sense of small things close up. Though one paints portraits and the other abstractions, both Akkerman and Chevska are studying things closely.

Sherman Sam