On a sunny afternoon in late March, I took a trip to the city of North Miami Beach to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art. From the street, the building seems very unassuming, blending with the surround city-scape. Not until I walked inside, into the main gallery did I become fully aware of the vastness of the space the structure offered.
The museum currently offers two exhibits. The first is an exhibit of the work of Purvis Young; A local artist who was self-educated and self-taught. While definitely noteworthy, my attention was drawn to the main exhibit by renowned Hungarian- born artist, Rita Ackermann. Having studied art history, I had heard the name Rita Ackermann, but if asked to describe her work, I might not have found it to be such an easy task. In addition, her work has grown and developed over the decades; each series, with similar undertones, take drastically different forms in terms of subject matter and medium used. This diversity in presentation is discussed though her various series, regarding the different emotions, thoughts and experiences that fueled the inspiration.
A lot of the artwork topics relate to the subject of identity. This includes “belonging”, including ones place in a society, identification with professional peers, and the most prominent aspect of identity- national identity. I was unaware of Rita Ackermann’s early life before she moved to the states in the early ‘90s, and the influence that had on her works. According to the exhibition catalogue, “Especially her early works show Ackermann’s previous isolation from western culture as a youth [that] heightened her sensitivity to the distinctive characteristics of American society”. Having moved to New York in the early ‘90s, Rita’s sense of identity was shaken by her limited knowledge of American culture and social norms. At this point in Ackermann’s career, her works are based a lot more on her communist Hungarian background. She explained that in school they had been taught a bit about the outside world, but were never able to experience it. For a communist government, it is very open minded to even to allow education of other ideas and ways of life. This disconnection made her feel isolated, and she became more introverted, turning to art as her form of communication.
Art work can always been interpreted in vastly different ways from one perspective to another. As follows, I will express the thoughts and feelings I experienced as I visited the MoCA exhibit and attempt to connect them known emotions the artist was experiencing and her inspiration at the time.
The first work I’d like to explore from the exhibit is titled “in Da Shade”. The painting had started as a scene with figures enjoying a picnic. After painting these characters, Ackermann continued to paint over them “until they were reduced to shadows”. On top of the work is a bright rainbow that the figures are huddled under. The strong contrast between the dark work with the bright colors of the rainbow make the rainbow really pop off the canvas. Could the rainbow represent light in the dark, or literally a rainbow after the storm? The concept of almost blacking out the figures seems to echo her feelings of isolation and the lack of knowledge she experienced while first living in the United States. Thus, the darkness is a lack of knowledge and the rainbow represents the growth of knowledge, coming into the light from the dark.
Another subject that she deals with is female archetypes. In literature and art, the female figure comes in many forms. The most commonly seen across the world and in various cultures is the concept of the woman as the nurturer/ caregiver. The connection between motherly nurturing to fertility and to Mother Nature suggests the strong connect between women and to the earth. This is seen in the work, “The African Nurse”. Once again it is a darker painting, but the viewer sees a woman that seems to be cradling another figure. As in the title of the work, “Nurse” references the care giver. The right arm of the nurse, which is holding the other person, seems to have a plant-like quality to it, as if her arm is becoming part of nature. The nurse becomes a caregiver and transforms into Mother Earth. Ackermann also cut out a part of the canvas and used rabbit skin instead of the cut piece. A natural material is used in a very organic image, further connecting the woman to nature.
Another subject I noticed throughout Ackermann’s work is the duality of femininity. Women are perceived in a certain light: they must act, look, and dress in a certain way to be considered feminine and socially acceptable. Being perceived as un-ladylike can have many negative connections. Many cultures expect women to look pretty, not say much or be submissive. On the other hand, some men prefer the strip- club persona of a woman, one who provides an erotic persona.
This duality is perfectly displayed in the collage work “Do’s & Don’ts”. This work presents a few cutout images of Brittany Spears, who had a very public breakdown in 2007 and shaved her head, something considered very un feminine. Furthermore, having it be such a public display is a big no-no in terms of being ladylike. A 2nd image shows Brittany looking put together, carrying one of her sons. Here she epitomizes the exact opposite of the first image, in control of her emotions and at the same time being motherly, a desirable cultural and social ideal. This is a very strong DO. In the same work woman are depicted with big cat-like eyes. This is a duality in itself. The big eyes can refer to “wide-eyed” innocence and purity, but the cat-like aspects of it can also be an indication of the sexual nature of women. One image demonstrates complete duality in itself, showing the opposite ends of the spectrum for female behavior. Acting one way is a strong Do, while the other is a big Don’t.
The work “Get a Job” throws the viewer right into the middle of the piece! The scene, as viewed from western/American societal standpoint, is clearly in a whore house. Young girls are lying around scantily dressed. The work shows how the other half lives, shunned by society for getting involved in this type of life style. One becomes a spectator in others’ private lives that are not generally open and shared with the public. A notebook lies open with a weekly agenda that has “drug” scribbled in pen with a phone number. Two of the five girls have band-aids on their thighs and elbow creases, suggesting the use of heavy drugs, such as heroin. Two girls in the back are kissing, which is generally considered inappropriate behavior for a lady to partake in, but can also be seen as desirable by some. Red smudges across the canvas represent blood. Femininity is very closely correlated with the loss of virginity and the bleeding that accompanies it. For many cultures, a non- virgin is not considered marriageable. This bloody effect on the canvas suggests the loss of innocence for the female ideal, connecting it all to suggest that this is a dirty and wrong trade in which to engage. In a series of these works, Ackermann refers to these girls as “nymphs”.
The girl in the center of the painting serves as the focal point. Shown with a tear coming down her cheek- she is clearly unhappy with the events that have led her to this place. Her emotion echoing the title of the work, she seems as though she might have been much happier with a legitimate job. Her pain evokes a desire in the viewer to help her, to pull this sad girl out of the painting, to get her a shower and a warm meal. In a sense, help her regain her femininity and innocence. An interesting constant underlying message within Ackermann’s works is the vast difference between Ackermann’s social standards and American standards. To Ackermann, the girls in the painting are not merely girls, but instead also representations of freedom from living outside of the rules and constraints of society. As stated in the exhibition catalogue, these works “demonstrate Ackermann’s previous isolation from western culture as a youth, height[ening] her sensitivity to the distinctive characteristics of American society”. This description provides quite a different take on the works than my feelings and interpretations!
Another work that shows the duality of life relating to Ackermann’s objectivity regarding taboo subjects in western culture is the work “My Way is the Highway” from 1999. The painting depicts a car that has been involved in a crash, portrayed at a very odd and un-natural angle. The point of impact has distorted and bent the car at a 90 degree angle. Blood spills out into a pool in front of the car, indicating the severity of the crash. At the point of impact are bubble-like illusions, above the car showing two very different images. The first is a harmonious bubble, with a soothing light blue color presenting flowers, butterflies, people holding hands and flying doves. This image offers a sense of calm, order, and peace. The other sphere provides quite the opposite effect. Drawn in black this image offers a chaotic scene with knives, a frightening figure at the center, skeletons, and a person that resembles the villain from the Saw movies. The 2 bubbles coming together and touch at one point. Through this figurative representation, Ackermann show her experience with a severe car crash from her past. At the worst moment, she felt calm and at peace but then gained a sense of the reality and horror of the situation, feeling both emotions simultaneously. Many emotions create a complete experience, and the brain works in strange ways to protect us from ourselves, like triggering adrenaline when we face a fight or flight situation. The two vastly different mindsets created the whole experience; one that we hope is not repeated.
The last work that really caught my attention was “Fire Crotch”. This sculpture was created with cardboard cut outs combined in a collage, creating a figure together in a Plexiglas frame, standing at average human height, leaning against the wall. As a gallery informant explained to me, this work was created by Ackermann’s daughter and was then blown up to life- size proportion. The figure is composed of a cat’s head, a torso, with an image of a hand at the waist placing a gun in the jeans. Completing the figure are cardboard box cut outs for the arm and legs. Orange yarn is added to the cat head which creates the look of flowing red hair in pigtails, as a child might draw.
The figure first seems aggressive with the cat’s expression that of a hiss and the gun clearly visible in the jeans. But as the informant also explained, the waistline image is actually that of a woman’s; one’s mind often associates guns with masculinity. This then relates to the use of the cat head with feminine qualities. The Plexiglas frame is also a light, sometimes delicate material, and the work leans gently against the wall. A relaxed stance is not a typical pose for one in a shoot out. Additionally, one of the cardboard legs has a “fragile” shipping label, possibly alluding to women’s delicate and fragile nature. Upon looking at the figure again as a whole, however, I still gained a sense of it as surprisingly strong and aggressive piece. Thus, I feel that this work depicts the duality of identity and raises feministic ideals of a strong woman, with a fighting spirit.
Rita Ackermann’s work brings back into the focus what made the United States the great country it is today, a country built by immigrants. Being unsure of one’s identity is an idea everyone can relate to. For example, adolescence is a human stage in which one aches to discover who he or she is and where one belongs in this world. Ackermann is able to express these emotions in many different ways, while helping the viewers question societal norms. Feminism was a strong issue in the 60s, and it sought to dissolve stereotypes and social standards from generations past. Today, feminism is still a very prevalent issue today, and these works inspire more thoughtful reflection on the subject.
I greatly recommend this exhibit!