Margaret Ackland’s beautiful paintings cast off any doubt about the value of still life as a genre. Her virtuosity as a painter is highlighted in the exhibition Mementos. The paintings are about the stuff of life remembered like images on a flickering screen – all light and dark and movement.
The works bring to mind the touch of familiar materials: cool silk slips, stiff white shirts, the rustle of the wedding dress, the crinkle of white tissue, the soft gasp of the drycleaners bag. The clothes we inhabit take on something of our shape and form, a trace of us, and in so doing are no longer mass produced items but are gradually moulded to reflect qualities of their owners. Animated, these garments people Ackland’s paintings - offering insights both specific and more general about how we journey through our everyday lives from the quotidian to the more dramatic moments as we don the various pieces of attire appropriate to the occasion.
The garments capture a specific moment; a birth, a death or a marriage and allude to others: the flirtation suggested by a piece of lingerie, the sombre professionalism of the business suit. Some recall poignant encounters with the most pedestrian pieces of forgotten clothing and can embody the most wrenching wave of emotional charge (the overlooked glove, a white shirt or a child’s raincoat). These physical objects link past and present. It is not just seeing them but their tactile qualities that are the sensations we often register on a subliminal level. Except if they catch us unawares and then they offer us a Proustian moment of involuntary recall of that lived moment and we are flashed back in time again, ‘standing in the doorway’, recalling the sensation of touch as much as sight.
Ackland’s work is all about touch. Even the latex gloves she paints transcend their mundane purpose to become animated bird-like subjects: her eye was caught by the gloves as she sat by the hospital bedside of her father, mundane and disposable ‘skins’ worn by the hospital staff who usher us both in and out of this world. Gloves also form a link to another age of grace and formality, wedding gloves, Opera gloves, or the red kid which seem to hint at the sexual.
How we comprehend the world is all about the registering and linking of scattered bits of information. We often have very little to go by and yet our senses make abstractions comprehensible, even reassuring. Margaret Ackland’s work pushes this idea within the formal limits of our reading and perception of the painted surface. Just how how much is required of the viewer and how little she can give us to go by has been pared to a minimum and yet we can fill in the gaps and do so automatically.
Her technical virtuosity is as understated as the subjects of her painting, embodying the concept of ‘less is more’. Her work distils the three dimensional onto the two dimensional, wrestling representation and the very nature of paint, to allow the work ‘a life’ and yet fixing with the barest trace of oil paint to a flat surface. It is a complex orchestration that is called for to avoid the prosaic or the grandiose, to suspend time and space and to allow the viewer to glimpse the possibilities of painting. In Ackland’s work there is a synergy of the image and the mark – the trace of white paint across a black ground glides like a memory.
Repetition of action gives rise to skill and provides our lives with a rhythm. It is through these ritual actions that we act and re-enact throughout our lives that mark both the passing of time and punctuate the most dramatic moments reminding us of our own mortality. It is in these overlooked moments that our lives go on and the habits and rituals of a lifetime seem to have an endlessness. Ackland’s work reminds us that we are here for only just a brief moment - a breath that divides one world from the next as fleeting and as delicate as the gossamer of the tissue paper that holds both our new garments and our cherished memories.
The personal and the public, a juggling of the poetic and the pedestrian is what makes this work transcend its subject. It offers us a vehicle to discuss ‘big’ questions – the history of Vanitas, the contradiction of the suspension of time and our vanity for considering such a thing as possible, and, of course, our own mortality. Ackland provides us with space to contemplate both the here and now-ness of our lives and to accept that in fleeting moments our memories will contain a myriad of small gestures, habits and sensations which Ackland articulates in the garments of her painting– a second skin which becomes us.
Essay by Isobel Johnston