Paint What You Know // An Interview with Fiona Ackerman by Alex Stursberg

Rang­ing from Abstrac­tion to Real­ism, Fiona Ack­er­man pur­sues a highly diver­si­fied and method­i­cal paint­ing prac­tice.  An inven­tor of new real­i­ties, Ackerman’s work inves­ti­gates her own paint­ing his­tory, as well as those of oth­ers. Exper­i­men­tal yet deeply philo­soph­i­cal, Ackerman’s paint­ings blur our under­stand­ings of real­ity and chal­lenge how we per­ceive space.

I first became enam­oured with Ackerman’s work after view­ing her paint­ings in per­son at Win­sor Gallery in East Van­cou­ver. I was struck by the play­ful­ness and ten­der com­po­si­tional bal­ance, yet I also felt engaged by the com­plex inves­ti­ga­tional process employed within the works. An inves­ti­ga­tor of the artist stu­dio space, Ack­er­man recently invited me to her stu­dio to do some research of my own. On a sunny fall after­noon at the vast 1000 Parker St. Stu­dios, Ack­er­man served me mint tea and began my les­son on her world.

JESUS: A SHORT STORY — (Ate­lier Gre­gor Hilt­ner) 2012 — Oil on can­vas 91.5m x 111.5cm, 44” x 36” Cour­tesy of Artist
SAD MAG: What are you cur­rently work­ing on?

FIONA ACKERMAN: I’m cre­at­ing work for my next show at Win­sor Gallery. It’s much like the work I’ve been doing over the past cou­ple of years, which involves inves­ti­ga­tions into other people’s stu­dio spaces. That’s what all the paint­ings here are for. I’m reluc­tant to say whose stu­dio spaces they are, as I haven’t com­pletely rounded out exactly what the exhibit will be. But for exam­ple, this long one [Ack­er­man points out a paint­ing of an abstracted stu­dio space roughly 6ft x 4ft] is for a gallery I work with in Ger­many and is from the stu­dio space of this print­maker who lives in Berlin named Fritz Meckseper. As well, this por­trait [Ack­er­man points out a smaller real­is­tic por­trait paint­ing] is of him. Some of the other paint­ings here are from a visit to Lau­r­nence Paul Yuxweleptun’s stu­dio. So I’ll be con­tin­u­ing these types of inves­ti­ga­tions into stu­dio spaces.

SM: So you’ve been vis­it­ing other artist’s stu­dios for a while and con­tinue to do so. What do you achieve through these vis­its? What’s avail­able at another artists’ stu­dio that may not be avail­able at your own?

FA: Well it started in my own stu­dio a few years ago; I started a project where I was doing all these abstract paint­ings and I decided to pull out dif­fer­ent reoc­cur­ring sym­bols in the paint­ings and put them on their own sheets. I’d been sit­ting in my stu­dio with all this work that I’d been star­ing at for months and months, and I felt tired of look­ing at it. I didn’t par­tic­u­larly want to talk about it either. I had this big blank wall and I just started to put up all these sheets that I’d col­lected to just see how they looked. That kind of launched me into this whole idea of paint­ing my envi­ron­ment as I build it, in my stu­dio. So, then I took those sheets and ended up going into this whole series of paint­ings based on paint­ing those sheets which led me into paint­ing my stu­dio, because I moved away from the wall and looked at the whole envi­ron­ment. Then I really started to use that up a lot, where I felt I was kind of wring­ing it out where it was sat­u­rat­ing itself.

At this point I went to Ger­many to visit my father who’s also a painter. I vis­ited his stu­dio and took some pho­tos of his space, which grew into more paint­ings of his space. Then it became an inter­est­ing chal­lenge. Going into oth­ers spaces, it’s not always obvi­ous what I can bring into their world that is of my world. So I go in and see what I can find, then I bring it back to my stu­dio and work it out and trans­form it into some­thing of my own.

SM: So the start­ing point for you with these stu­dio inves­ti­ga­tions was your own past abstract works. What comes first for you gen­er­ally? Abstrac­tion or Representation?

FA: It depends on what I’m work­ing on. The next show that I’m putting together, which I’ve already started on, won’t be stu­dio paint­ings. It will be more abstract. I don’t know exactly what it will look like in the end. But that’s the dif­fer­ence, because it will be a much more abstract approach. It’s all paint­ing. It’s all orga­niz­ing. It’s all bring­ing in and putting out. But it exer­cises two very dif­fer­ent ways of paint­ing for me that I think go hand in hand. So, for that process it will be very much just div­ing in and mak­ing crit­i­cal choices every­day. Whereas with the more rep­re­sen­ta­tional works, a lot of the deci­sions are made at the begin­ning and then they’re tweaked, which comes together as it goes along. So it’s a dif­fer­ent process.

SM: Are the abstract works more experimental?

FA: I would say the spon­tane­ity is there right through to the end of the paint­ing. Whereas with the stu­dio paint­ings, I’m already start­ing with para­me­ters, which is the inter­est­ing point to it for me. It’s almost the lim­i­ta­tion that makes the chal­lenge that I’m drawn to. Going in and tak­ing pho­tos and bring­ing them back and try­ing to build some­thing famil­iar to me out of that.

SM: Is there a chal­lenge in bal­anc­ing these two approaches?
FA: I think they go together in a sense. With the stu­dio paint­ings I’m using rep­re­sen­ta­tional envi­ron­ments very abstractly. So rather than lay­ing a can­vas on the floor and reach­ing for blue and green and yel­low or what­ever I decide to do at that moment I’m reach­ing into somebody’s room and grab­bing for their ele­ments and using them in often very abstract com­po­si­tions. So for me there’s not a huge dif­fer­ence to these prac­tices. I think they go together. That’s why I’m excited to do two dif­fer­ent shows in one year, because I don’t want to do the same thing all the time. So they both off­set each other.

TREE OF KNOWLEDGE — 2013 Acrylic and spray paint on can­vas, 150cm x 125cm / 59″ x 49″ Cour­tesy of Artist
SM: Return­ing to the self-referential ele­ments of your work, how does this shape your process? For exam­ple A Voca­tion By the Sea is a paint­ing that builds on 4 or 5 other paint­ings. When did this research into your own paint­ing his­tory become impor­tant for you?

FA: I think the more you work the more it’s going to hap­pen and you can either pay atten­tion to it or ignore it. If you decide every sin­gle day that you go into your stu­dio that you’re going to do some­thing dif­fer­ent than any­thing you’ve tried before, which I have often tried to do because that’s how you stretch your­self out, you inevitably build up a lan­guage that is yours that looks like all these things. So the sum of all these things together is who you are as an artist. You’re con­stantly ref­er­enc­ing your­self whether you want to or not.
With the paint­ing “Voca­tion By the Sea”, that’s very much doing it on pur­pose. It’s look­ing it right in the face. It’s say­ing, ‘okay what can we do if I just take what I have here and turn it into some­thing?’ Those paint­ings were also from when I was work­ing in the Down­town East­side, at Pigeon Park Sav­ings. I did art groups for the Port­land Hotel Soci­ety and after that worked at Pigeon Park for about five years. After all that, what I took from my expe­ri­ence, or my artis­tic reac­tion to work­ing in the Down­town East­side ended up being “paint what you know”, and I painted other bank tellers. That’s why it turned into “Voca­tion by the Sea” because it was my stu­dio work life and my day job work­ing at the bank all inter­min­gling into this fan­ta­sy­land that was that painting.

A VOCATION BY THE SEA – 2011 — Oil & spray paint on can­vas — 171.5cm x 228.5cm, 90” x 67.5” Cour­tesy of Artist
SM: Much of your stu­dio inves­ti­ga­tion works start with a pho­to­graph. How does pho­tog­ra­phy play into your work? What do you achieve through paint­ing that you can’t through photography?

FA: In a paint­ing you can break all the rules of real­ity. For exam­ple in that “Voca­tion by the Sea” paint­ing, you wouldn’t be able to make an arrange­ment like that in a pho­to­graph. Unless you had some see through strings, or some­thing gimmicky.

SM: What about Photoshop?

FA: Well if you go into Pho­to­shop you’re essen­tially paint­ing on the com­puter. I have no prob­lem with that. But I appre­ci­ate paint­ing with paint too, so I take it to another step, which I guess is more final for me. It’s the tool I’ve always used.

WHAT HAS ALREADY BEEN SAID IS STILL NOT ENOUGH – (Ate­lier Gre­gor Hilt­ner) 2011 Oil on can­vas 165cm x 260cm, 102” x 65 – Cour­tesy of Artist
SM: When did you really start to iden­tify as a painter?

FA: Prob­a­bly when I was about 18. My father lives in Ger­many, and I didn’t know him grow­ing up, and I was invited to go to one of his sum­mer school courses that he teaches. And there my eyes were really opened to paint­ing. He said right at the begin­ning, “we’re not here to make pic­tures, we’re here to learn a few fun­da­men­tal things about paint­ing” and under­stand­ing the struc­tures and how to put together a paint­ing really caught my atten­tion. So I came back after that and decided to begin paint­ing. Well it just pre­sented itself. I started tread­ing water and have been doing it ever since.

It takes a long time. It’s like learn­ing an instru­ment. It takes a long time to get to know your­self or at least get to the point where you can at least play with enough ease that you don’t have to think about it all the time when you’re doing it. I think that’s one of the gifts that my father gave me with these classes. He said, “ten years you have to paint for”. I didn’t even think about hav­ing a paint­ing career for years. I just worked my jobs, paid for my sup­plies, and didn’t worry about where I was get­ting. When I grad­u­ated from art school I just put my head down. I went under­ground. And I think men­tally know­ing that I had a jour­ney to go through before I could start to have any sem­blance of con­fi­dence was lib­er­at­ing in a way.

SM: Let’s dis­cuss your philo­soph­i­cal foun­da­tions and your inter­est in Michel Foucault’s writ­ings on het­ero­topic space. You’ve explained het­ero­topias as “a place that reflects some­place real but at the same time inverts it or shows it in a com­pletely other way”. How is this philo­soph­i­cal cor­ner­stone impact­ing your work?

FA: The inter­est in Fou­cault actu­ally came after I started doing all these paint­ings. And prob­a­bly after I was work­ing on the “Voca­tion by the Sea” paint­ing.  I just hap­pened to be read­ing on the Inter­net and came across some­one else’s’ essay about het­ero­topic space. I had read Fou­cault in uni­ver­sity and had been a fan, but I didn’t know any­thing about het­ero­topias or any­thing he’d writ­ten about “Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipe”. Then I read this essay and it just seemed so obvi­ous. I thought, “I don’t even have to write my own artist state­ment, this is exactly what I’m on about”. It was great. And then that just opened a door. It seemed like every­where I turned I could relate it to this con­cept. It’s not lim­ited to that, but it’s one way of describ­ing basi­cally what we do when we write or when we use any part of our life or expe­ri­ence or envi­ron­ment in a new way.

SM: What I find con­fus­ing about the con­cept of het­ero­topias is how to define what qual­i­fies as one. Fou­cault pro­vides a lot of descrip­tions, such as Grave­yards and Psych Wards, but I have trou­ble dis­tin­guish­ing what is or isn’t a het­ero­topia. Is it a real space that exists out­side of main­stream society?

FA: I think the mir­ror is the clos­est exam­ple because it looks so much like what we do, or what we are. But it’s lit­er­ally back­wards and it’s a space that you know that you can’t go to. It’s real­ity inverted.

SM: Do you think the stu­dio is a het­ero­topic space?

FA: It func­tions on a num­ber of lev­els. One way to think about it is that the stu­dio is a het­ero­topia for my work life. The stu­dio is an envi­ron­ment that has all the nor­mal func­tions of daily work; I show up at nine, I work until 4 or 5, I make cof­fee, and I break for lunch. But yet, my job is to break all the rules of the con­ven­tion of the work­day. To end up at the end of the day hav­ing wrecked what you started is not nec­es­sar­ily a bad day. So it shows all the real­i­ties of work, it’s a work envi­ron­ment; it’s my office or stu­dio. But it’s also inverted. What we know is there and the oppo­site is also present. Then inside my het­ero­topia stu­dio is the paint­ing which reflects my stu­dio but at the same time reflects it in an inverted or jum­bled up or upside down way.

GENERATION – 2011 — Oil & spray paint ON can­vas — 180cm x 180cm, 71” x 71” Cour­tesy of Artist
SM: How do you bal­ance the seri­ous­ness of your the­o­ret­i­cal foun­da­tions with your sense of humour? A lot of your paint­ings use cheeky titles, such as Fresh Taint. Is humour an impor­tant ele­ment in your work as well?

FA: Well I’ve never really started with a title and tried to illus­trate it with a paint­ing, it’s usu­ally some­thing that hap­pens after. But humor is a way to really boil every­thing down to its essence. So say with the Fou­cault idea, it is a big idea. And it was a big idea that I wanted to do my last show on. Because it still made sense to me, it still applied to what I was doing in stu­dios. I wanted to talk about it and open a con­ver­sa­tion about it.  But with the next show at Win­sor I feel like I’ve got­ten to know it really well and I’ve decided, good idea or not, to just boil down the next show and call it “Its Not You It’s Me”. In essence it’s a bit of a punch line, but I go into other peo­ples stu­dios and turn them into my world, my het­ero­topia. “Its Not You It’s Me” is the humor­ous approach to a larger con­cep­tual idea.

SM: When do you know that an idea is com­plete? At what point do you drop one line of inves­ti­ga­tion and begin another?

FA: I don’t think I have. With the next show at Win­sor, I’m pick­ing up on the last show. That had paint­ings of my stu­dio and a cou­ple of other artists. Then when I was last in Ger­many I got to go into some other artists stu­dios. I didn’t have my own proper stu­dio, so my own stu­dio wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily a big part of it. It was more of a trav­el­ing expe­di­tion through the mir­ror. The whole idea was being a naive explorer and going into some­body else’s envi­ron­ment and decid­ing “well in this world they only eat red paint”, or that kind of thing, and record­ing it in my log and mak­ing my own sto­ries about their worlds.
Com­ing back to Van­cou­ver, I was still really inter­ested in stu­dios. I was a Cana­dian in Ger­many ask­ing peo­ple “who are the painters here? What are peo­ple doing?” And peo­ple would ask me “what are peo­ple in Canada doing?” I would think; “oh god I have to name names and I don’t know any­body”.  So for me to look at other people’s work here, doing these paint­ings is the best way for me. It gives me a way to dis­sect things that I’m inter­ested in, through my own prac­tice. It’s basi­cally just another explo­ration for me.

SM: So in these explo­rations you acquire parts of other artists’ worlds, mak­ing them yours. Is that what you feel about the final paint­ing? Does it still pos­sess the essence of the other artist?

FA: I’m not sure and I guess that’s why I haven’t shown the work to any of the artists whose stu­dios I vis­ited for this show. There is a sculp­tor named Alexan­der Syler in Berlin, and I painted his stu­dio. I showed him some of the work and he said in bro­ken Eng­lish “oh, I never saw myself that way”. That’s when I real­ized “That’s because it’s not you its me”. This is my world that I’ve brought you into. So that’s the ques­tion; how much is it about you?
Fiona Ackerman’s new exhibit, “Its Not You It’s Me”, will be pre­sented in Feb­ru­ary 2014 at Win­sor Gallery, Van­cou­ver, BC.