An essay on the work of Fiona Ackerman by Sunshine Frère
Fiona Ackerman breaks up with art on a regular basis. Like all artists, she is an active interlocutor, one who sorts through the noise of multiple break-ups, filtering and fine tuning until a signal is found and creation begins anew. The eternally entropic and paradoxical network of art is a veritable chaos. A network accustomed to being broken down, destruction being paramount to the impulse of creative potentiality. Working within the framework of constant noise reveals new signals, strategies, codes and systems of understanding.
In my studio paintings, I’m reflecting a real place, a real studio. But at the same time, I’ve broken it down and built it back up into something new. On the canvas, we can see evidence of both the real studio space, and the space of imagination… - Fiona Ackerman, 2014
A Vocation by the Sea, 2011, Fiona Ackerman, 67.5 X 90 in. oil & spray paint on canvas
Ackerman first exhibited a series of paintings in 2012 that were a departure from her abstract work. Entitled Heterotopia, the paintings were hybrids of abstraction and realism. They were the result of the artist’s experimentation during an initial period of creative block. Breaking things down in her studio, she selected icons and gestures that had recurred frequently in her abstract work, and turned them into simple isolated paper-based studies. This exploration revealed she had been developing a personal lexicon of painterly symbols within her abstract work for quite some time. The de-construction of past work also resulted in a series of interesting and impromptu studio installations. Paper works were hung next to and on top of finished and unfinished paintings that were arbitrarily hanging or leaning on the floor. The flatness of the symbols on paper shifted into the third dimension as the paper curled from the unfixed points and created shadows on the walls. Amidst the chaos of the studio, a fourth dimension emerged. The studio space became a muse, a mirror and a heterotopia.
Generation, 2011, Fiona Ackerman, 71 X 71 in. oil & spray paint on canvas
Ackerman painted what she saw physically in her studio, but also what she imagined. As the excavation of her own studio continued, she also began exploring other artist’s studios, creating metaphorical and allegorical portraits of others by co-opting elements and objects from their spaces. These new narratives became part of the larger dialogue on the artist and the studio. Little did she know in the spring of 2012 that she was just getting started…
Making these paintings, I was surprised by the seemingly endless ways heterotopic spaces can be played out through their narratives. But as quickly as the paper trail led me to Foucault, Foucault brings me right back into the studio, into every studio, into the heterotopia that is the physical studio. - Fiona Ackerman, 2012
It’s Not You, It’s Me, the 2014 exhibition of work by Fiona Ackerman, is an expanded exploration of philosopher Michel Foucault’s concept of Heterotopia. Nearly two years on from this last exhibition, Ackerman is in the thick of processing multiple studio visits, coalescing information and imagery, deconstructing, and recontextualising. The artist has become an ‘art-thropological’ explorer and voyeur, culling aesthetic components from various artworks found in studios and meticulously recording both theoddities and banalities of each of these spaces.
Decoy1, 2013, Fiona Ackerman, oil on canvas, 14 x 24”, (Studio visit with Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, Vancouver)
Ackerman’s approach to research and painting is that of a forager, constantly seeking out the noise of painting and practice. She attempts to review all possibilities simultaneously; her approach is at once expansive and speculative. Reality blends with perceived reality, these elements soon join up with imagination, which results in visual overload, aesthetic cacophony. It is at this point of chaos that she begins to filter out a signal.i The more involved she becomes with exploring other artists’ heterotopias, the more difficult the navigation of signal and noise, which is why she has developed a concise methodology for conducting research.
She begins by visiting studio spaces, sometimes with the artist present, but often without the artist; for her, direct artist contact is not required as an essential element of field research. They are not interviewed, the work is not discussed, she focuses primarily on the physical space. Entering the studio, she completes a survey of the space, taking in the elements that immediately stand out, noting interesting voids that should be explored further. After the first general sweep, she photographs and looks more in depth at particular areas, objects and artworks. The visit produces a large number of photographs, a database that includes all types of elements within the space, the lighting, the uniqueness of some things, the everydayness of others, and so on. Often, all of this documentation is promptly filed away. She does not want to be overly familiar with the studio she has just visited before she begins painting. So the images and experience are put to rest, left to simmer on the subconscious backburner. Each studio excavation must be stored long enough that, when it is retrieved again, it can be explored with fresh eyes and intentions.
Starry Night, 2013, Fiona Ackerman, oil on canvas, 75 x 60”, (Studio visit with Ron Moppett, Calgary)
I’m not holding a mirror to the studios, but a distorting lens. - Fiona Ackerman 2014
The studio is a site of infinite potentiality; when an artist is working within it, the studio is, most importantly, a space of becoming.ii What happens when the artist is absent, be it from the studio, or from the context of their paintings? Can creative zeitgeist be channelled through space and time? Ackerman supplicates this question through her painting practice. Each heterotopia has its own rhythm, as does each painting found within this series. Ackerman achieves fluid balance between her authentic voice, her imagination, the interpreted voice of the artists whose space she imbibes, and the larger conversation with the ontology of painting itself. She is interested in interpretation as a form of circulation.
Circulation – or eternity —- goes in all directions, but it moves only insofar as it goes from one point to another; spacing is the absolute condition. From place to place, and from moment to moment, without any progression or linear path, bit by bit and case by case, essentially accidental, it is singular and plural in its very principle. It does not have a final fulfillment any more than it has a point of origin. It is the originary plurality of origins, and the creation of the world in each singularity, creation continued in the discontinuity of its discrete occurrences.iii- Jean-Luc Nancy
Black and White and Red Wine„ 2013, Fiona Ackerman, oil on canvas, 60 x 48”, (Studio visit with Jesica Eaton, Montreal)
This new collection of work envelops the viewer, placing them within a non-world, an in between space that connects a series of dots - some real, some imaginary. The ways to connect these dots are multi-trajectory. In recreating heterotopia over and over again, each painting projects an existence that circulates between the realms of studio, gallery, artist(s) and the mind.
the networked studio, a social space, an originary plurality of origins
Direct contact with the artist is no longer required; the walls of the studio are more expansive than ever. Artists may frequently work alone in the studio, but they are virtually always connected. The paradigm of the studio has changed dramatically. For some artists, it is no longer a physical site, but an ephemeral digital field of data that can be accessed from multiple spaces and sites. Painters are a breed of artist that still require a physical space in which to produce their work; however, research, conversations, technique and skill development, even existential exploration, are available ad infinitum via the world-wide-web. The closure and sovereignty of a physical studio space breaks away to fractured online histories. A different type of studio practice has been in process for over a decade now.
The Geometric District, 2013, Fiona Ackerman, oil on canvas, 72 x 28”, (Studio visit with Jessica Eaton, Montreal)
Perhaps as a countercurrent to all-consuming social digitality, Ackerman felt the need to experience the physical presence of an artists’ heterotopia. Henri Lefebvre once said, Space is neither a ‘subject’ nor an ‘object’ but rather a social reality – that is to say, a set of relations and forms.. It begins, then with the spatio-temporal rhythms of nature as transformed by social practice. Ackerman has stated that each artist’s studio becomes a unique palette from which she draws upon to create her paintings. She maintains a continuous vested interest in conversing with artists through exploring their studio spaces and testing out the character of their work within her own painting practice.
It’s very good for contemporary artists when you are trying to have a conversation with the world as it is – not as it was – to work with other people. -Lawrence Weinger
Hanging Air, 2012, Fiona Ackerman, oil on canvas, 32 x 84”, oil on wood 4 x 13”, (Studio visit with Ron Moppett, Calgary)
Consider the artist in an unfamiliar studio space. She or he will be simultaneously surrounded by context and lack of context: paint brands, products, exhibition books or cards, old furniture, music collections, photographs and artwork. Some of these things will be familiar, as they exist within society’s collective conscience. Others will be completely foreign. Personal attributes of the artist whose studio is being visited may be projected onto objects, and some items may draw on the very personal history of the visiting artist. To visit a studio is to explore spatio-temporal undulations, not only in the art, but in the objects, space, and the circulative-non-linear time that surrounds it all. To interact with studio space, as Ackerman does, is a form of social practice. Her approach to working with others represents a new model of circulation.
Ackerman breaks chronology and disrupts focus in her paintings by challenging the viewer to consider where the painting actually ends, where the studio begins and what elements are the artist’s flourish or the imagination taking over. Each painting leads viewers on a curious journey down a rabbit hole.iv Stripes migrate off one canvas and onto the floor; the painting within the painting doesn’t end with the first set of stripes, but with the second set within the space. A stream of geometric shapes rests neatly on a shelf. The shadow play between them is satisfying to admire, until one’s eyes adjust and become aware of the strange levitating sphere off to the left of the shelf. An easel appears precariously balanced on what seems like two abstract representations of tires; splashes of red, turquoise, purple and white paint surround the table, their explosive energy appearing to keep the table and its contents upright. These are but a few of the visual scenarios that push and pull the viewer in and out of heterotopia. Then there are a selection of personal gestures found within the work. Ackerman’s trademark line-drawn red apple makes an appearance as does her intriguing and skilful shadow play and her constant challenge to the constraints of a canvas. Work actually jumps canvases in some cases. This results in a compendium of new narratives, and the creation of an ‘other’ space, an ‘originary plurality of origins’: heterotopia.
The Formal Fugitive, 2013, Fiona Ackerman, oil on canvas, 75 x 60”, (Studio visit with Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, Vancouver)
Ackerman titled the exhibition It’s Not You, It’s Me, however, it could be argued that this title may be of more specific relevance to her own perspective on the work. For the rest of us, she creates something that is not of her essence, nor the essence of the artist whose studio she has visited.v A new lens is added to the equation: the viewer. With each viewer comes diffraction, a shifting of perspective of the work, breaking it up in an entirely new way.
Just as no single TV show or pop song is as hot today as the TiVo boxes and iPods that manage their organization, so too with art is the ease of agility of access and navigation through and across data fields, sites and projects that takes precedence over any singular, lone object… It doesn’t stand in defiance of the network forces, but rather proves their further extension by measuring how these forces have subsumed and changed the way we think about objects, have subsumed the very opposition between the single and the multiple, the enclosed and the interpenetrated.vi - Lane Relyea
Ackerman’s work subsumes the enclosed and the interpenetrated. Each iteration of heterotopia on display is not a painting, not a studio, and not a portrait. It is a representation of entropic force on the network of art. Ackerman’s paintings are noise, forcing the viewer to consider chaos and filter through a data-field that includes paintings, studios, galleries, artists, and art history. In the world of being-singular-pluralvii, a painting’s value is not conferred once it is pulled from a studio and placed in a gallery setting, or in a collector’s home, for that matter.viii The only constant in terms of the ‘value’ of a painting is that it’s value is fluid, for context and circumstance are also fluid. Intrinsically aware of this property and Ackerman strives to routinely exploit it.
The Past Is Prologue,2013, Fiona Ackerman, oil on canvas, 142 x 71”(Studio visit with Ron Moppett, Calgary)
Affectively coseismical, Fiona Ackerman’s work is a rich amalgam of fragmented aesthetics and interconnected ideas. None of her works start as a blank canvas. Each painting already carries with it multiple histories, spaces and contexts. Too many signals combined create noise, yet from noise one can forge a signal. Ackerman is inviting you, the viewer, to break-up, with art. After all, she does it on a regular basis. It’s for the best, honestly, it really is.
i Ackerman has stated that only a painting can decide what a painting has to be, she builds up multiple layers and narratives on her canvas before pairing things down, playing with foreground and background. This practice and approach parallels philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s observation art and cosmogony:
Art always has to do with cosmogony, but it exposes cosmogony for what it is: necessarily plural, diffracted, discreet, a touch of colour or tone, an agile turn of phrase, or folded mass, a radiance, a scent, a song or a suspended movement, exactly because it is the birth of a world. (and not the construction of a system.) A world is always as many worlds as it takes to make a world.
Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000, p9. Print.
ii As Deleuze and Guattari explain, the process of “becoming-” is not one of imitation or analogy, it is generative of a new way of being that is a function of influences rather than resemblances. The process is one of removing the element from its original functions and bringing about new ones. http://www.rhizomes.net/issue5/poke/glossary.html
Author Phillip Zarrilli discusses the notion of the studio as a site of becoming in his essay The Metaphysical Studio:
The studio …. a place of hypothesis, and a place of possibility… where something can become nothing. Sound from silence. Light from darkness. Therefore a liminal place, between…. As a temporarily, space-tie along some continuum, but only momentarily, in that moment of performance. A place that can never be definitively mapped because the marks of its mapping disappear as they appear. Therefore, a place of erasure, risk, loss, and always, as anyone who steps on the stage knows, potential failure….
The studio… a site to explore and develop the ability to modulate between union and separation… the drawing near to or keeping a distance from. A provisional place where there can be no absolutes. A place of propositions, not givens; a place to practise dialectics, not ends or goals; a premise, not a decision; a possibility, not a fact. ….
Zarrilli, Phillip. “The Metaphysical Studio.” The Studio: Documents of Contemporary Art. Ed. Jens Hoffmann. London/Cambridge: Whitechapel Gallery/MIT Press, 2012, pp104-105. Print.
iii Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000, p5. Print.
ivAn original reference to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and chasing the unknown, or visiting an altered reality. This statement is also a reference to the notion of a digital Rabbit Hole, a seemingly endless process of clicking through to other pages and sites when surfing the web.
v …Massimiliano Gioni refers to the last few years of art-making as inaugurating a ‘headless century’ – another metaphor for today’s sense of increasingly decentralized activity in the wake of ebbing dominant structure.
Relyea, Lane. “Studio Unbound.” The Studio: Documents of Contemporary Art. Ed. Jens Hoffmann. London/Cambridge: Whitechapel Gallery/MIT Press, 2012, p221. Print.
vi Relyea, Lane. “Studio Unbound.” The Studio: Documents of Contemporary Art. Ed. Jens Hoffmann. London/Cambridge: Whitechapel Gallery/MIT Press, 2012, p221. Print.
vii Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000, p28. Print.
viii Ackerman’s work proves that the following observation by Brian O’Doherty is a fallacy: 'artworks in the studio have an alertness, no matter how casually thrown around, that they don't take with them when they leave. In the studio, partly as a consequence of this, they are aesthetically unstable. … They have not yet determined their own value.' Ackerman’s work remains unstable and alert, as it is heterotopias.
O-Doherty, Brian. “The Metaphysical Studio.” The Studio: Documents of Contemporary Art. Ed. Jens Hoffmann. London/Cambridge: Whitechapel Gallery/MIT Press, 2012, p37. Print.