Spotlight on Thomas Ackermann

by Roy Bernardi & Jennifer Leskiw

Thomas Ackermann, I Love M Matisse, 1984, oil and beeswax on canvas, 66”X66"
Thomas Ackermann, I Love M Matisse, 1984, oil and beeswax on canvas, 66”X66″

Thomas Ackermann was born in Bad Hersfeld, Germany in 1952. As a child his first major influence was a set of Bibles his mother received in trade when Thomas was just four years old. Within the Bibles were illustrations by the Old Masters, Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Michelangelo, Raphael, Caravaggio, Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, and Jacob Jordaens, to name a few. Thomas became enthralled with the illustrations he constantly viewed in the Bibles. 

The Ackermanns immigrated to Canada in 1964 where Thomas continued his studies. As a young adult Thomas enrolled in the New School of Art as it was then called, in Toronto, Ontario. The New School of Art was an academic school under the tutelage of Dennis Burton, Robert Markle, Graham Coughtry, Gordon Rainer, David Bolduc and John MacGregor, all of which had achieved artistic success within the art world of Canada. Out of a class of 20 art students, Ackermann was the only graduate that would go on to pursue and sustain a career as a successful full-time artist. 

Thomas Ackermann, Cedar Lake Ritual, 2022 oil on canvas 55"x60"
Thomas Ackermann, Cedar Lake Ritual, 2022, oil on canvas. 55″x60″

Inspired by the famous Canadian Group of Seven, renowned for their dramatic landscapes of Ontario’s northern reflections, Thomas Ackermann worked in a spontaneous and improvisational manner focused on creating his own painting style. While the aforementioned generation drew their inspiration from the all too familiar landscapes, Ackermann was greatly influenced by the abstract style of action painting. Artists like Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb, Ad Reinhardt, Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko became the staple of New York Abstract Expressionism. In Canada there was Harold Town, William Ronald, Ray Mead, Tom Hodgson, Kazou Nakamura, Walter Yarwood, Jock MacDonald, Alexandra Luke, Oscar Cahen, Hortense Gordon and Jack Bush, who formed the Painters Eleven.  That generation introduced abstract action painting to Canada in the 1950’s, influenced by what was transcending in New York City from the New York Abstract Expressionists.  

Ackermann experimented with images taken from the Impressionists and modern artists and incorporated those images with the influences of the New York Expressionists. By using his own methods and techniques, he would completely transform the image by assimilating the two styles.  Early works such as “I Love M. Matisse” (1984, oil and beeswax on canvas 66” x 66”) and “Curtain Call for a Flag 1” (1984, oil and beeswax on canvas 80” x 80”) took an inspired Henri Matisse “Blue Nude” cut out image and merged it with a Willem de Kooning “Women in Landscape” image creating an assimilation of the two styles on a William Ronald backdrop. 

More recent works such as “Bacchanal on Cedar Lake” (2022 oil and beeswax on canvas 55” x 60”) and “Cedar Lake Ritual” (2023 oil and beeswax on canvas 55” x 60”) where the central figures are inspired by Matisse’s “The Dance” (1910, oil on canvas) were juxtaposed over a backdrop manipulation of Tom Thomson’s “The West Wind” (1917, oil on canvas) thus forming a dramatic combination.  The former, a night vision with the crescent moon lighting up the dancing figures and the latter, a cloudy day vision of the dancing figures under a burning tree. 

Thomas Ackermann, Northland, 2022, oil on canvas, 48″x76″

Another recent example is “Northland” (2022, oil and beeswax on canvas 48” x 76”) where he places a central figure inspired by Canadian artist Ken Danby’s “At the Crease” (1972 oil on canvas) juxtaposed over a Rorschach backdrop manipulation of Tom Thomson’s “The West Wind” (1917 oil on canvas). Ackermann often appropriates iconic images readjusting their history into his own poignant point of view. He continuously uses an inspired image in different combinations until he has exhausted its usage.

As a painter for more than 50 years Ackermann has endeavoured to elicit a visceral experience from his paintings to the viewer. His interest is not about the motif or images used as the central focal point but more so the process of transforming the painted surface with his unique manipulation of his medium, the oil paint, thus creating a physically, stunning painting. Ackermann quoted “Half of my subject is the painting itself.” He developed a unique way of applying materials onto the canvas, in spirit, much like Jackson Pollock or Helen Frankenthaler, dripping or pouring. Ackermann uses a 600 year old medium such as oil paint, mixed with beeswax, allowing flexibility to the integrity of the paint and re-invented or altered it to suit his own unique process. He is constantly altering his methods to discover new ways and techniques in which to express his vision. His works are either highly reflective, without topical varnishes, or extremely rough and textured. In his later and more recent works, a brush has not touched the final surface.  

Thomas Ackermann, Le Dejeuner Sur L’une, 2017, acrylic on paper mounted on canvas, 65"x52"
Thomas Ackermann, Le Dejeuner Sur L’une, 2017, acrylic on paper mounted on canvas, 65″x52″

Like many of his peers, Ackermann worked through a series of developmental phases or stages influenced by his surroundings.  He began in Toronto, Ontario, moved to Spain, returned to Canada, and finally settled in the small rural town of Forest, Ontario. He has worked through different influential periods beginning with “Figurative Abstractions” (1973-1988). then transitioning to his “Spanish Paintings” during his residency in southern Spain (1988-1994).  From there, on his return to Canada to Forest, Ontario, he commenced his transformation into his “Qabala” series (1994-2000).  Constantly moving forward, Ackermann created “The Card Paintings”, an ambitious body of work at a grandiose scale from any previous works (2002-2004). Following this, he transitioned to works predominately on paper mounted to canvas with his “Target-ID” images taken from portraiture. He produced an oeuvre based on a photograph of “A Portrait of Apollo 11 Astronaut Buzz Aldrin”.  This photograph was taken by his fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong, showing Aldrin standing on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969.  By using historical and biblical imagery, one sees reflections on the astronaut’s helmet face-shield/visor creating his “Astronauts” series (2007-2009). 

In later years, Ackermann became discouraged with the academics of the art world. He turned to his dark period producing a series of paintings titled “Dead Men Standing”, “The Gates of Hell” and “Fukushima”.  Here he stumbled upon a new technique that would transform his work for the next several years and which has continued to this day. This discovery consisted of placing a high grade acrylic film called Duralar over an image, than peeling it off and repositioning it on a fresh canvas.  This created a soluble transfer which allowed him to not only paint one image but to transfer it to other canvases creating paintings from one master image.  Ackermann further discovered that the longer he left the high grade acrylic film cover on the painting, the more plastic in nature the surface would become, and remain to the point where the surface looked as if the image was behind plexiglass, when in fact it is the actual paint surface. One only needs to look at the surface of any one of his paintings to visually see the quality and aspects of the applied oil paint to the canvas revealing the genius of a true master. 

Top 10 – Art fairs New York 2023

by Graciela Cassel

1. Bice Lazzari: Stacatto in a Blue Musical Forest. “Untitled” Richard Saltoun Gallery at Independent Art Fair 2023

2. Mary Watt: Sky-water dives into a deep river and walks into the forest, searching for light. “Shared Horizon ( Keepers of the Western Door), Marc Strauss Gallery at Armory 2023

3. Lakela Brown: Ancient gold piercing our history and our heritage. “ Composition #2 with Doorknocker Earrings, 56 Henry at Armory 2023

4. Stuart Lantry: Ferris wheel riding with gifts facing a dangerous reality. “Asleep at the reinvented wheel”, Spring Break 2023

5. Ed Baynard with a lineup of our daily treasures – “Bowl painting” , James Fuentes at Independent Art Fair 2023

6. Allan Wexler: Coffee seeks its own level. Jane Lombard Gallery at Independent Art Fair 2023

7. Pepe Mar: Face Off (Philodendron), 2023, mixed media and acrylic on museum board, 24 x 20 inches, David Castillo at Armory 2023

8. Gregg Woolard: Ancient call for energy and synergy in orange metaphors. “Valley of Kings”, Max Fish at Spring Break 2023

9. Jennifer Bartlet: Irresistible, jammed packed, luxuriant dots. “Addenda”, Locks Gallery@ Armory 2023

10. Kai Schiemenz: a green forest climbing into the sky. Kantia Unexpected, Eigen+ Art Gallery at Armory 2023

Mike Hansen’s “Spot-o-Fi” Exhibition

by Steve Rockwell

Mike Hansen, Off Minor, Big Band (Jazz Series), 2021, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 36 inches
Mike Hansen, Off Minor, Big Band (Jazz Series), 2021, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 36 inches

Classical music and contemporary jazz is wound tightly into every thread of the weave of Mike Hansen’s “Spot-o-fi” installation of watercolours, canvases, and plaster sculptures at Lonsdale Gallery in Toronto. Scan the QR code on the exhibition labels, and hear the music that gave life to the artist’s visual output. Yet, there is no necessary chain here that binds one to the other. Hansen admits that his painterly output amounts to a critique on abstract expressionism and its latter day emotional hangover, a purely visual art conversation between modernism and its post-painterly derivations. Consequently, the “Spot-o-fi” visual wall art stands alone against the welter of Hansen’s “wall of sound” references.

Mike Hansen Spot-o-fi installtion view

If Hansen has a go at abstract expressionism’s watered down derivatives, he also manages to save some powder for the music streaming platforms of our day. His exhibition title, “Spot-o-fi” is a dig at the prevalent algorithms, encouraging a type of lazy listening that tend ultimately to denigrate the sonic masterpieces he references to background noise.

Mike Hansen, A Love Supreme (Jazz Series), 2021, acrylic on canvas, 74 x 74 inches (four canvases)
Mike Hansen, A Love Supreme (Jazz Series), 2021, acrylic on canvas, 74 x 74 inches (four canvases)

No better example of a modernist painter steeped in music, who succeeded in as tight a threading of sound and image as anyone, was of course, Paul Klee. The 2008 “Melody and Rhythm” exhibition at Museum der Moderne in Salzburg, Austria was a tribute to the Swiss artist’s uncanny ability to evoke “sound composition” from colour, line, and texture. 

Mike Hansen, Reflections on Gnossienne No 3, 2023, acrylic on epoxy, 27 x 11 x 8 inches
Mike Hansen, Reflections on Gnossienne No 3, 2023, acrylic on epoxy, 27 x 11 x 8 inches

I make the Klee reference since the painted forms of Hansen’s four-panel “A Love Supreme (Jazz Series)”, for instance, a tribute to Coltrane’s opus, draw no obvious parallel to the music that may have inspired them. Brightly coloured, amorphic cutout shapes that waft and melt in airy layers, possess a graphic life independent of sound – unless of course, a conscious inference is made to connect them. The positive for Hansen plays to the materially visual art in the exhibition, and that the gloss-candied surfaces of his sculpture production appear good enough to eat, can’t be held against the artist.

Mike Hansen: spot-o-fi, September 8 – October 14, 2023 at Lonsdale Gallery, 410 Spadina Road, Toronto, ON Canada M5P 2W2. T: 416 487 8733 info@lonsdalegallery.com www.lonsdalegallery.com

Sophia Vari: A Retrospective

by John Mendelsohn

This fall in New York, the work of sculptor Sophia Vari (1940-2023) is the focus of a retrospective exhibition in Chelsea, and an installation of twelve large-scale sculptures on Park Avenue. Together they give us a picture of this artist’s development, and its culmination in work created from 1997-2011.

In the exhibition at the Nohra Haime Gallery, the earliest pieces, from the 1980’s, are flowing, rounded depictions of small figures. These works anticipate the abstract works that followed through the 1980s – intriguing, beautiful sculptures whose curved forms intertwine, suggesting organic growth. The mythological titles of works evoke the birthplace of the artist in Attica, Greece. A prime example is CENTAURE ELEVANT DEIDAMIE [Centaur Kidnapping Deidame], with its golden, sensuous bulges suggesting the struggle of Deidame, (also known as Hippodamia, “tamer of horses”) with one of the centaurs who attacked her bridal party, attempting her abduction and rape.

Sophia Vari, CENTAURE ENLEVANT DEIDAMIE, 1988, bronze, gold, 13 x 12 x 10in. 33 x 32 x 21 cm. Copyright © NOHRA HAIME GALLERY. All rights reserved
Sophia Vari, CENTAURE ENLEVANT DEIDAMIE, 1988, bronze, gold, 13 x 12 x 10in. 33 x 32 x 21 cm. Copyright © NOHRA HAIME GALLERY. All rights reserved

In the 1990’s Vari’s work incorporated a new set of influences. There was an emphasis on intersecting planar structures that seem like a hybrid of the organic and the mechanical. They suggest the artist’s absorbing the examples of both Cubism and the Olmec culture of ancient Mexico, whose art included massive heads sculpted in stone. FORMES DU SILENCE [Forms of Silence] combines soft-edged geometry with curving shapes that suggest plant or animal life.

SOPHIA VARI, FORMES DU SILENCE, 1996 – 1998, bronze, brown patina & terracotta oil, 11 1/4 x 13 3/4 x 8 5/8 in. 28.5 x 35 x 22 cm. Edition 2/6. Copyright © NOHRA HAIME GALLERY. All rights reserved
Sophia Vari, FORMES DU SILENCE, 1996 – 1998, bronze, brown patina & terracotta oil, 11 1/4 x 13 3/4 x 8 5/8 in. 28.5 x 35 x 22 cm. Edition 2/6. Copyright © NOHRA HAIME GALLERY. All rights reserved

From the earlier compact works, Vari progressed to sculptures that stood vertically, suggesting abstract figural movement, and a winding, knotted energy. Polychromed planes, evident in the previous pieces, become defining characteristics here, lending a kind of painterly verve to these resolutely sculptural works. The presence of color and strong form are reflected in the collages from the 1990s through the 2000s, with their canted, rectilinear elements in paper and cardboard, enhanced by trompe l’oeil shadows in charcoal.

The twelve sculptures installed on the mall on Park Avenue from 53rd to 62nd Streets represent a quantum leap in Vari’s work, both in scale and artistic ambition. Tragically, the artist died just three days before the installation was completed. The work is presented by the Nohra Haime Gallery in collaboration with The Sculpture Committee of The Fund for Park Avenue and the NYC Parks’ Art in the Parks program. This suite of sculptures arrives in New York after having been shown in cities across the world including Paris, Rome, London, Beijing, Athens, Cartagena, and Geneva.

Sophia Vari, Point immobile, 1993. Bronze, black patina and yellow paint. 66 1/2 x 58 x 56 in. (169 x 147 x 142 cm). Edition of 3. Copyright © NOHRA HAIME GALLERY. All rights reserved
Sophia Vari, Point immobile, 1993. Bronze, black patina and yellow paint. 66 1/2 x 58 x 56 in. (169 x 147 x 142 cm). Edition of 3. Copyright © NOHRA HAIME GALLERY. All rights reserved

These are muscular, fully embodied works, reductive and staunchly modernist in their visual language of twisting, arced cubic elements. There are echoes of the rigors of Cubism and Constructivism, but a playfulness is at work here too. The sculptures are full of movement and compacted energy, and often suggest human conundrums or even individual personages. The bronze has a black patina, and selected planes are painted, usually in white, but at times red or yellow. The effect is strongly graphic, accenting the choreography of striding, reaching, and locking together.

The sculptures range in emotion from jaunty, to ominous, to satirical, all expressed abstractly. In the piece Point immobile [Still Point], the moment of equilibrium is reached, but paradoxically not by the reconciling of opposites. Rather, like for warring lovers, the quietude begins when the forms are so tightly bound that no further struggle is possible.

Sophia Vari, Les serpentes de la guerre, 1993. Bronze, black patina and red paint. 91 x 52 3/4 x 50 1/2 in. (231 x 134 x 128 cm). Edition of 3. Copyright © NOHRA HAIME GALLERY. All rights reserved
Sophia Vari, Les serpentes de la guerre, 1993. Bronze, black patina and red paint. 91 x 52 3/4 x 50 1/2 in. (231 x 134 x 128 cm). Edition of 3. Copyright © NOHRA HAIME GALLERY. All rights reserved

The sculpture Les serpentes de la guerre [The Serpents of War] features sinuous, vertical tentacles whose melding and separating are emphasized by long, white planes that contrast with the black, snaking curves. The planes end in two circular “heads” which hold a single white sphere, a form which Vari repeats, seemingly connoting a node of consciousness embedded in the physicality of form.

Sophia Vari, L'Homme (The Man), 2004. Bronze, black patina and yellow paint. 118 x 49 1/4 x 41 1/2 in. (300 x 125 x 105 cm). Edition of 3. Copyright © NOHRA HAIME GALLERY. All rights reserved
Sophia Vari, L’Homme (The Man), 2004. Bronze, black patina and yellow paint. 118 x 49 1/4 x 41 1/2 in. (300 x 125 x 105 cm). Edition of 3. Copyright © NOHRA HAIME GALLERY. All rights reserved

L’Homme (The Man), which like many of the sculptures is over ten feet tall, conveys the presence of a figure all wrapped up in himself, a monument to his self-possessed identity. His blindness to his pretention to power is signaled by the two tiny eyes in his massive cockscomb head, one a protruding orb, the other an unseeing concave space.

Sophia Vari: A Retrospective at the Nohra Haime Gallery, August 7 to September 30, 2023 and Sophia Vari On Park Avenue: A Tribute, Twelve Monumental Sculptures on Park Avenue, 62nd to 53rd St., New York, May 20 to November 5, 2023

Exquisite Variants: Maggie Nowinski and Alicia Renadette

by D. Dominick Lombardi

Exquisite Variants: Maggie Nowinski and Alicia Renadette, the current exhibition at Overlap gallery in Newport, RI, features intricate collaged drawings, mixed media sculptures and paintings. Installed in a variety of configurations and formats, everything here suggests the peripheral representations one stores as secondary memory, the kind of imagery that might be spawned by subconscious prompts throughout the five senses. Within all this, there appears to be an overwhelming focus on the tactile quality of this mentally stored minutiae, details that keep all the visual effects fluid and stimulating without being too definitive or easily recognizable.

Maggie Nowinski, Somaflora Specimen – Friend or Foe I, 2023, Pen and ink and gouache on heavyweight Stonehenge paper, 28 x 42 inches
Maggie Nowinski, Somaflora Specimen – Friend or Foe I, 2023, Pen and ink and gouache on heavyweight Stonehenge paper, 28 x 42 inches

This series of works began during COVID when studio time for visual artists was unencumbered by social gatherings, work, or just plain “things to do.” Spanning over two years of detailed combinations of divergent imagery, materials and intentions, the approach of Nowinski and Renadette is very much like the 1925 Surrealist parlor game, Exquisite Corpse, where artists added strange, unrelated drawings on the same piece of paper, and always in sequential order. In this instance, with Exquisite Variants, there is more of a back and forth between the two artists who find common ground in an aesthetic that speaks of the inner-worldly. Overall, the imagery is tinged with Surrealist undertones that combine biomorphic forms, indications of technology, manufacturing debris and unlikely transitions all enhanced by a very wild and wily palette.

Alicia Renadette, Communion, 2022-2023, Easter Bunny suit, Grandmother’s tablecloth, artificial flowers, craft felt, Easter grass, ribbon, fabric, embroidery floss, pipe cleaners, bubble wands, wire, 48 x 48 x 28 inches
Alicia Renadette, Communion, 2022-2023, Easter Bunny suit, Grandmother’s tablecloth, artificial flowers, craft felt, Easter grass, ribbon, fabric, embroidery floss, pipe cleaners, bubble wands, wire, 48 x 48 x 28 inches

What I find most intriguing about this exhibition is the way the exhibition ebbs and flows visually and viscerally through the use of certain repetitive details found in both the two and three dimensional objects. Exquisite Realm: Scanning the Substrata (2023) covers the largest wall of the gallery, driven by seemingly endless, individual, collaged ink drawings and mixed media sculptures that set in motion an evolving, multiplying, expanding organism. A potent structure of energetic expression built upon meditative mark-making and inward searching.

Maggie Nowinski & Alicia Renadette, Exquisite Realm: Scanning the Substrata (detail), 2023, Mixed media installation
Maggie Nowinski & Alicia Renadette, Exquisite Realm: Scanning the Substrata (detail), 2023, Mixed media installation

In the worst times of the COVID pandemic, there was an overall fog of life, of not knowing how bad it would get, if you were its next victim, or if there would ever be light at the end of the tunnel. So it is not so surprising that anxiety levels would increase throughout the globe under such overwhelming stress. For whatever reason, artists have an innate ability to employ that negative energy into their work by channeling the flow of lines, shapes and colors from the subconscious, enabling them to represent the illusive space between survival and dread.

Exquisite Variants: Maggie Nowinski and Alicia Renadette ends September 10th. For more information visit the gallery’s website https://www.overlapnewport.com/