Rita Ackermann, "Listen to the Fool's Reproach," Dec. 13, 2003-Jan. 17, 2004, at Andrea Rosen Gallery, 525 West 24 Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
Rita Ackermann's 14 new oil paintings, currently on view at Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York, illustrate what seems to be a series of cartooned existential dilemmas. Many of the small oil paintings star the same young woman, a girl with a distinctively feline face -- is it the artist herself? -- in various psychodramas of corrosive love, sacrifice and hedonistic self-hatred.
In Dance of the Wild Hunt, a circle of half-dressed houris dance around a crimson flame with liquor bottles balanced on their heads, while in Listen to the Fool's Reproach, a top-hatted, blonde emcee perches in the woods atop a banshee that consumes a plump infant. Gathering also has a medieval feel; it depicts a pair of weirdly draped women -- covered with a kind of mini-chador, sans pants -- both with upside-down chairs balanced on their heads. One holds a shovel in one hand, and holds her other hand over the mouth of her companion.
The Bookburners II is a contemporary Judith and Holofernes, in which a bare-breasted woman sits at a table holding a long knife in one hand and a severed head in the other. A wine bottle sits in the middle of the table, and her companion is only visible by his pair of folded arms. In this particular icon to bad love's exhausting cycle of enmity and regret, our Judith seems more sorry than victorious, though she holds her lover's head high.
In Lina, the young woman pays a hospital visit to an obese, pockmarked lady in a wheelchair. The girl is dressed up in a deep red polka-dotted dress and leggings, and sits on a bench in front of an outlandish painting (signed "John Starr," the metaphysical abstraction features images of chains and locks).
In another painting, titled Fassbinder, a distressed young woman huddles topless in a dark doorway. Wearing black leather pants and holding a lit match between her teeth, she turns her eyes anxiously upwards, like a tormented high-school girl's homage to Elizabeth Wurtzel. On the ground by her feet is a pile of discarded matchsticks.
The scene in The Dynasty is a more pastoral one. Here, a shapely damsel with a black bob and stylish swimsuit skips down an alpine path. In between her pert form and a mountain in the horizon resembling a giant leafy artichoke, Ackermann has painted a long diagonal shadow that fills the middle ground with ominous bruised space. Velvety and coy, The Dynasty seems capable of seething and morphing when the lights are out.
Similarly, The Blind Sculptress is eerie, tender and smoothly rendered. The painting's cool colors roll together, replicating the sculptress's gentle touch as she tactically molds an enormous bust of a bald man who could be Picasso.
Ackermann was born in Budapest and came to New York in 1991, where she quickly became known for her drawings of winsome young nymphettes with soft puppy bodies, budding breasts and black eyes. Dressed in tiny panties and slashed slips, they smoked pot, shot junk, scrubbed floors for their dope-sick boyfriends, rode in fast cars on speed and survived. The theme was romantic masochism, and it went over well -- these images decorated T-shirts, skateboards and the entrance to Max Fish, the pioneering hipster haunt on Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side.
She had her first exhibition at Andrea Rosen in 1994, and abandoned her "heroin chic" iconography in favor of a series of more wholesome paintings of her younger brother tramping though the mountains. For her last show at Rosen, three years ago, Ackermann made sprawling ball-point pen renderings on raw canvas of fast cars and bad girls, in what can be seen now as a prescient hillbilly preview of the current fascination with Goth imagery.
Now that Ackermann has moved away from turbulent urban distractions to rural Texas, where she lives with her husband, her paintings have become stiffer, deeper and more ambitious. They draw on a hybrid of sources, ranging from autobiographical episodes to stories from Western literature and art history, Wiccan lore and Slavic folk tradition.
Despite the virtues of Ackermann's new paintings, they seem flat in comparison to her older work. The emotion in that work resonated like Edna St. Vincent Millet's poem, First Fig:
My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night
But ah, my foes and oh, my friends
It gives a lovely light