Maddeningly good self-portraits by Philip Akkerman

‘Painting belongs to an individual, for an individual and not for ‘the people’. For a private house and not for a public space.” That is what painter Philip Akkerman wrote in 2012 in his readable artist diary (nai010 Publishers, 2020). He returns to it more often: sterile white museums and galleries are necessary, but the primary destination of painting is still: the living room. In his new exhibition in the Torch gallery in Amsterdam, he has drawn the utmost consequence: he has furnished it like a living room, with wallpaper, Persian carpets, chairs, table, TV, bath and bed. Next to the bed on the bedside table is the book: The future of the Museum. Just as wittily provocative as the exhibition, Akkerman gave it the title: “From a madman, for a madman.”

Akkerman (1957) has been painting his self-portrait with great perseverance since 1981 – so for 40 years. In doing so, he deepens his knowledge of old painting techniques. The result is an enormous series of incredibly varied self-portraits, sometimes realistic, sometimes distorted, sometimes almost non-figurative, but always fascinating.

You can see that again in the nearly thirty recent self-portraits in the living room gallery. Sometimes a portrait appears as if painted by an old master, such as number 13 of 2020 (he numbers his paintings every year). Then again it’s a distorted horror face with a gaping hole in which his eye floats (issue 31, 2018). Then again he builds up his portraits with very thinly painted drawing lines à la Dürer: 54, 2020. Anything goes in Akkerman’s hallucinatory painting, which is both serious (vanitas skull) and cheerfully coloured, or deep universe black with bright yellow flares. Maddeningly good paintings. To round out the party in the Torch living room, Akkerman also hung up work by artist friends, such as Bert Boogaard, Simsa Cho, Zeloot, Houcine Bouchiba and more.

The intestinal mucosa is in An Analogy designed by Hedwig Houben as a pink-orange rain suit.
Photo Henk Geraedts

Cleansing action for all bodies

It has been a while since Hedwig Houben (1983), the performance artist who was nominated for the Prix de Rome in 2015, showed new work. In 2017 she won the Charlotte Köhler Prize, a book was published and there was a final exhibition at the Fons Welters gallery. It seemed time for Houben to reflect on what exactly she wanted with art.

At Park in Tilburg, Houben shows that she no longer operates as a solitary artist. Her working name has been changed to &Houben – indicating that the future lies in collaboration. At Park she does this with the interesting writer Brenda Tempelaar and Rob Leijdekkers. The presentation An Analogy must be seen as a body. That body consists of organs – sometimes literally imitated in plastic or paper mache, sometimes unrecognizable and funny designed as a pink-orange rain suit (the intestinal mucosa). According to Tempelaar, those organs cleanse the body of evil substances. But they do more. They also comment on what Houben holds dear: the art world.

Tempelaar’s script is a playful dialogue and monologue, in which the appendix, the tonsils, the lymphatic system and all those fine organs and glands hidden behind the sternum, trachea, nasal cavity, organs and glands hidden in the brain and abdomen become characters. Together with ‘the artist’, they comment on training courses and subsidies, on the exhibition circus and the illusion of the big breakthrough.

The first ‘activation’ of this script took place during the opening. Then Hedwig Houben read through a megaphone the confrontational rejection text with which the Mondriaan Fund refused a subsidy to Park. After such an ‘activation’, the room looks empty but serene. There are racks and platforms on which organs and glands are ready to be ‘activated’. &Houben has found a curious way of merging performance, exhibition and cultural criticism.

That should be enough for this Analogy. But in Park there is work by another artist: Paul Geelen (1983). Geelen has been researching the behavior of snails for years, with remarkable results. Now in Park, he makes two snow-white shapes revolve around each other in a metal cage as in a mating ritual. It’s beautiful, it’s poetic – but a foreign body in this whole.

Charles Apple, Standing Nude
Foto Peter Cox

Polaroid nudes by Karel Appel

What must it have been like for such a nude model? You lie or stand behind a Polaroid camera the size of a refrigerator, and there Karel Appel is zooming in on your genitals or tits. The result can be seen on Appel’s giant Polaroids, which are now on display in the Eenwerk gallery in Amsterdam.

They were totally unknown, these Polaroids that Appel made in New York in the eighties. Now that their hundredth birthday is being celebrated in the Netherlands – albeit minimally – this year, they hang out here. It is one of the few exhibitions devoted to Appel (the Slewe gallery showed ‘Horizon of Tuscany’ and the Cobra Museum also paid attention to Appel, but that was about it). The fact that the Eenwerk gallery is now exhibiting this work that has never been shown in Europe in Appel is a deserved tribute.

Apple’s huge Polaroid photos with close-ups of skin, hands, breasts and butt, and the ink, rope or chalk processing make the whole thing a little strange, but fascinating to watch. The most memorable thing about this exhibition is ‘Standing Nude’. An absurdist sculpture in which parts of photos that have been pasted on are fastened together with pieces of rope, like a pull doll that is reminiscent of old children’s toys, but less innocently. Here hangs a person who is uncomfortable in his or her nakedness, also because there are too many hands and feet, and also in strange places.

Thick ropes hold it all together, with the head at the top looking at you with wide eyes. The nose is worked, the face decorated and a mustache is drawn above the lips. Below that hang photo fragments of a naked woman; on the back the pieces of wood are colored with chalk. A more ‘ordinary’ work of art, almost reassuring, is this abstract blue skeleton. As if Appel also wants to portray the complicated woman-as-pull puppet as a sympathetic skeleton.

It is a unique work by one of the greatest Dutch artists of the last century. And it is hoped that the exhibition in this gallery will not be the last chance for the art lover to view this work in a public setting.

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