Supervert's review of an exhibit featuring the nymphet works of contemporary artist Rita Ackermann. Originally published in Artforum Magazine (November 1994).
Exhibit at the Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York
Each painting in Rita Ackermann's first solo show was organized around a predominant theme (speed, vacation, drugs, doing nothing) and populated by svelte waifs, fashionable nymphs, and other girlish sprites combined and recombined in an almost serial fashion, like a Minimalist's variations on a cube. In Now I'm Gonna Take a Vacation (all works 1994), Ackermann's figures all drawn in black outlines and filled in with color somewhat arbitrarily, like a coloring book cop typical vacation poses: one girl dives into the water; another skinny-dips; one faces us with her camcorder; another sunbathes in the nude (on her stomach, a can of Coke beside her, a squirrel rearing up right in front of her face, as though it were speaking to her); yet another seems to be playing with a dolphin that oddly reaches out to her with a (male?) hand. In short, the work combines the pastoral, the nude, and the painting of modern life: Ackermann's figures are modish Venuses, rave versions of Manet's Olympia.
If the hallmark of the nymphet, as defined by Nabokov, is semi-conscious sexual precocity, a special combination of innocence and awareness, then Ackermann's paintings are not "about" the nymphet phenomenon. To whatever extent the paintings are rave versions of Olympia, they're done not from the outside-in (i.e. seductive pictures of young girls painted by men) but from the inside-out: the works themselves come off as innocent but aware. The girls in Now I'm Gonna Take a Vacation seem to subsume their poses from pictures of movie stars at Cannes or the Riviera, suggesting a certain level of conscious desire to be glamorous and attractive, and yet, as in many of Ackermann's other works, the thrust of the painting is essentially idyllic. Similarly, the street-level windows that Ackermann created for the New Museum's fall season oscillate between these two poles: the artist brings the weird mix of eros and innocence that imbues Catholicism to her sexy nymphs and guileless lambs by portraying them in faux stained glass.
If Ackermann's girlish personae have the Word, however, they're keeping it to themselves. Even when Ackermann appears to pose outright questions in her works, as in the painting on denim Where Did We Come From? Where Are We Going? Who Are We?, it may well be that she's not only offering no answers, but no questions either merely a reiteration of the title of the famous Gauguin painting, and more girls doing their respective things. There are the sounds of radios playing, waves crashing, dolphins splashing, but not words being spoken. The girls never address each other, though frequently they appear to communicate with animals (especially dolphins and lambs). Maybe it's natural: Ackermann is an artist born in Hungary, trained in Budapest and Vienna, and currently working in New York. Sometimes her paintings (drawings, T-shirts, line of underwear, and skateboard designs, too) resemble Japanese cartoons, sometimes they draw on French painting or maybe reproductions of French painting in Janson's History of Art, who knows? In the end, the works have no native tongue: wearing Pumas made in Taiwan, listening to British music on a Japanese radio, the girls in Ackermann's paintings seduce not by words but through a certain nubile body language. Perhaps it's the domain proper to them as nymphets to seduce with words, that's the domain of the snake.