An artist’s studio is always insightful and a useful stepping-off point for any exploration of their practice. Margaret Ackland’s, like her work, is contradictory. The black-and-white-squared lino floor brings a sense of order and fixity to a scene that otherwise appears in dramatic flux. There are some small paintings of silvery dresses in flight, as if animated by ghostly spirits, against dark backgrounds – agitated but somehow benign; an elegant still life with a pair of lady’s dress gloves draped over the frame, perhaps painted under this persona; and a number of doubled Rorschach portraits in watercolour from 2014, twinned and uncanny, that prompted the artist’s current pursuit.

Across a table, sheets of Ackland’s Spanish watercolour paper seem almost airborne with the lightness of her indelible touch – monochrome figures from the news or cryptic, more private figures move in some sort of dance, speaking to each other. On the back wall, the watercolour scenes turn to colour, the figures more distinct. Trump is unmistakable in one, nudging out the Queen, while an overweight swimmer dives off from his shoulder. As is Barnaby Joyce in various stages of public embarrassment. In between, so quiet you might miss her, is the artist’s mother. The public and private are here interlaced and conjoined. 

It was the very contradictory nature of the watercolour medium and its relationship to her subjects – the ability to render often heavy and momentous world events quickly and with an ethereal touch – that drew Ackland to it. Indeed, the artist is not immune to the irony – ‘me being a bit of an old lady doing watercolours, but taking on contemporary life in a political way,’ she says.  Until recently, Ackland painted a watercolour each day inspired by the news and current affairs and, for four years, posted it on Instagram as ‘The Watercolour News’. It was a project both performative and, because of the increasingly baffling algorithms of this social media platform, ephemeral.

Four-and-a-half years on, with Ackland’s new body of work ‘Present Tense’, one can sense a subtle shift in the artist’s practice and worldview. A gasmasked soldier carrying a girl in his arms speaks immediately of Syria, and in another work disparate vignettes of emergency workers are from a recent mass shooting in Annapolis. But the borders between public and private have become smudged and grounded in Ackland’s more immediate world. In one narrative line, an Everyman figure hovers within city development sites, as if made anxious by the speed of our current construction boom; in another visual thread are the signifiers of Australia’s gig economy, in decorative clusters of high-vis workmen and a tangle of red and yellow share bikes. Nothing, it seems, escapes Ackland’s eagle eyes – like the otherwise ignored Scottish bagpiper in Sydney’s Central Station tunnel, which the artist renders with the care of cross-stitch. ‘It is paying attention to the little corners,’ she says.
Not that Ackland has lost interest in the bigger picture. It is just that the artist’s attitude to the mainstream media which brings world events into our lounge rooms has become more questioning and querulous. And, in particular, to the city’s traditional quality newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald.

‘What is wrong with us?’ She asks. ‘I’m just getting more and more despairing ... This trivial, rubbishy, trashy news is leading [Fairfax] into oblivion I’m sure.’ More meaningful social issues, Ackland believes, such as marriage equality and the displacement of refugees, have been sidelined in this mass-media myopia. But they are there in full view in ‘Present Tense’, subtly arrayed in a sea of umbrellas or rainbow-coloured hair, and suggested by figures abruptly cut off and dislodged from their normal social context.

One senses that it is the artist now, not the media, that is mediating her world. Quietly she watches, absorbing and analysing – a soothsayer of sorts. Here Ackland is working beyond the 24-hour news cycle, holding on to the images that swirl around us in the ether, trying to find some more lasting personal meaning.

Ironically, less than a week after our studio visit it was announced that Fairfax would be subsumed by the Nine Network – a development which former Prime Minister Paul Keating called ‘exceptionally bad’. And a day later Ackland posted on Instagram: 
Independent. Nearly. Always. It’s been four and a half years since I started painting from the press photographs in the Sydney Morning Herald. The past few months have become increasingly difficult as fewer and fewer journalists and photographers have tried to uphold standards in trying conditions. And now the merger with 9. Assurances that quality and independence will be maintained. I think I’m done.

Catalogue Essay by Michael Fitzgerald, Editor, Art Monthly Australasia 2018