There is a reason Bonnie Clearwater calls Rita Ackermann an artist's artist. Some of the art world's biggest names --Tracy Emin, John Currin, Christopher Wool -- also count themselves as both big fans and peers who collect her work.
"I've never seen such a response to an artist from their peers as I have with her," says Clearwater, who organized the Hungarian-born, New York painter's exhibit currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami. "What they all see in her work is the honesty and depth of emotion," Clearwater adds.
MoCA's executive director and chief curator has followed Ackermann's career intently, and wrote the catalogue essay for Ackermann's show. She gave Cultist a personal tour of the sweeping exhibit that boasts 48 works from 1993 to the present. It includes paintings, drawings and collages, several which have not been previously publicly displayed -- all by a woman who Clearwater calls one of the most notable painters of her
"[Ackermann's] work has great conviction and strength and truth," Clearwater describes. "There is nothing ironic about it. She has pushed her subject matter fearlessly as she has grown as an artist and the work is visceral and intelligent."
Ackermann left behind the ashes of communism in her homeland to forge
her distinct visual language after an arduous immersion into Western
culture. "After relocating to New York as a young woman after the fall of communism, Ackermann experienced newfound freedoms that contrasted with the isolation from the rest of the world in her native Hungary," explains Clearwater while standing in front of World War III Around My Skull, 1996-1997.
Ackerman's schizzy acrylic and ballpoint pen on linen painting reflects a nightmarish vision of displacement, choked with references ranging from masked cowboys to graffiti, braying horses, cartoon heroes, African masks, and skeletal monsters.
The primarily blue and red picture looks like a teenage boy's obsessive doodling, and even features a fedora-crowned commie apparatchik floating at the top of the composition, as if spying on scenes of Western decadence below. Beneath the disparate images carpeting the painting's surface, Ackermann has drawn a series of bunkers of the sort typically found dotting the Eastern European backwoods before the Berlin Wall was torn down.
"It has to do with the bunker mentality the artist grew up with," Clearwater says. Ackermann was also exploring notions of "creating something from the perspective of the male gender," the curator adds.
But as one navigates Ackermann's solo, what comes to mind is the type of Goulash Communism practiced in Hungary, known as the "happiest barracks in the communist camp," rather than the gulags of an oppressive regime.
One only needs to remember that Hungarians have been responsible for inventing plasma TV, holograpghy, the Rubik's Cube, the Mars Rover, and the ballpoint pen to figure out just how free creative types in this neck of the Carpathians were from the communist yoke.
Ackermann's work certainly doesn't convey suffering extreme hardships under Soviet Bloc rule. After all, she was one of the privileged few allowed to attend art school in Budapest and landed in the lap of New York's percolating 1990's underground scene on an arts scholarship.
It also appears Ackermann was a quick study at absorbing American pop culture. Plus, she arrived here rooted in enough art history to make an immediate impact on the scene while changing with the times.
Her WW III reverie, for example, is a far cry from 1993's Get A Job, the earliest Ackermann canvas in MOCA's exhibit. It depicts feline-eyed nymphettes outlined in black in various state of undress, and helped to put her on the Big Apple's arts map shortly after she arrived in the U.S. in the early 1990s.
As you circulate throughout the exhibit, you're struck by Ackermann's diversity, rather than her continuity. The quixotic talent is keen on experimenting with her craft and subject to change her brush stroke in mid-stride.
Picnic 2010, for example, is a heavily impastoed canvas inspired by French Nabi painter, Pierre Bonnard, in which Ackermann spackles her surface with sand as did Jean Dubuffet and even adds shattered wine goblets, popcorn and Marlboro butts to the mix -- a far cry from the nymphettes.
You'll also encounter collaborative pieces recently created by Ackermann and Harmony Korine -- another enfant terrible besotted with the Hungarian's aesthetic -- based on the indie auteur's Trash Humpers, a film depicting the foibles of a loser-gang cult-freak collective. One of these works, titled Trouble Is Comin', features a dead ringer for a decomposing Celia Cruz wearing a purple space suit and a traffic cone orange-colored wig as she reaches out to the spectator with a crudely drawn talon-like claw painted at the end of her wrist.
The crazy woman vaguely echoes Ackermann's earlier collage opus Firecrotch created in 2008 from yarn, printed paper, cardboard, tape, charcoal, spray paint, stickers and bolts and sandwiched between sheets of Plexiglas. Resting on the floor and reclining on a wall, this totemic scarecrow that rises above a viewer's noggin is cobbled together not unlike Frankenstein's monster. It features a creepy cat's head with a carrot-hued mane atop a movie poster of a man's torso pointing a gun to your chest.
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"As an artist Ackermann is fearless," Clearwater observes. "She has incredible conviction and creates straight from the gut. She absorbs everything and filters it through her own eyes."
While these works and others may convey the notion of a talent at the top of her game to some, to other casual observers they might also appear as created by different hands -- and in the end, that might just be the kernel of Ackermann's genius. She fearlessly jumps between the figurative, expressionistic, and abstract, while resisting becoming another brand, even though (not unlike her native goulash) she might not be everyone's favorite dish.
"Rita Ackermann" through May 6, 2012Museum of Contemporary Art 770 NE 125th Street, North Miami; 305-893-6211 mocanomi.org. Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday 1 to 9 p.m. Sunday Noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $5 general, $3 for students and seniors, and free for children under 12, MOCA members, and North Miami residents and city employees.