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Scott Michael Ackerman
Catalogue Essay

Sharp Teeth

New Paintings by Scott Michael Ackerman


Scott Michael Ackerman (b.1982) has tapped into the narrative of folk law, fairy tale and the history of figurative painting in his new body of work Sharp Teeth. Inhabited by a cast of wild beasts and peculiar characters, the paintings seem to hover somewhere between child-like enchantment and a shadowy place of suggested violence and the uncanny. For Ackerman, they express the travails of everyday life, interwoven with a dream-like imaginary world. He is exploring themes of “companionship, loneliness and a sense of wonder”. 


A rendering of the dark fairy tale plays out across several of the works. At the center of this is Spring Shawl, in which a young woman, reminiscent of Little Red Riding Hood (in this instance, in a green hooded cape),  gazes past the viewer, perhaps on the look-out for a big bad wolf. And there are beasts a-plenty for her to be concerned about. In Silent Stares, a pack of wide-eyed wolves are gathered under a blood-red moon, seemingly poised for the chase. The two female figures in Together, appear to have elongated like Alice after she ate the cake. Curiouser and curiouser. 


Ackerman’s menagerie might be separated into two camps; predatory and benign. In Beware, the monstrous head of a canine-type animal is depicted against a field of flowers, its fanged mouth covered in what looks like the blood of a recent kill. There is something in the glassy stare that suggests a feral amorality. In contrast, Story Time depicts a whimsical grouping of unicorn, deer, snake and cats, communing peacefully together under a night sky. One from the underworld, and the other from the pages of a children’s story book. In other paintings, the line between the two is blurred. The animal figure in Don’t Run Little Bear could be read as a friend or foe, either advancing with menace or preparing to flee from the child. It would seem as if Ackerman is imbuing these imaginary beasts with a range of human qualities (or presenting them metaphorically as facets of the human psyche), and yet he pulls back from anthropomorphism; even the cute ones have very sharp teeth.   


There is a formal quality to the representation of human figures in these works that point to the tradition of commissioned portrait painting in art history. In the eponymous work Sharp Teeth a solemn couple, dressed in vintage attire, pose stiffly in an open field. The oddly proportioned woman wearing a fox fur stands next to her companion, seated on a chair that looks strangely out of place in the natural landscape. There are echos of Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews in the subject and composition, but Ackerman has seated the male figure, subverting the usual arrangement, and Gainsborough’s hunting dog has been replaced by three tigerish cats. Although there is a tension between the passive, domestic couple and the wild creatures that accompany them, Ackerman has pointed out that the title of the show refers both to it’s animal and human ensemble. 


In Reclining Blond with Cats, Ackerman offers a striking reinterpretation of the classic art historical motif. A nude woman lies awkwardly on a picnic blanket as a feline stretches along her body, claws extended, while a group of cats watch from a distance. This scene could be interpreted as a contemporary take on the Leda and the Swan myth or perhaps a modern version of Manet’s Olympia. The ambiguity—whether she is inviting or resisting the feline presence—showcases Ackerman’s skill as a narrative artist, adeptly crafting scenes that invite multiple interpretations without providing explicit answers.

The figure of the snake has been an enduring motif in Ackerman’s work over the last few years. Throughout history, and particularly in relation to Folk art, they have been depicted to represent the dualities of life and death, good and evil and wisdom and temptation. In many cultures, they're associated with transformation, rebirth, and renewal due to their ability to shed their skin, and as such, they work effectively within the shifting narratives of these paintings. Interestingly, Ackerman’s fear of snakes has driven him to paint them, almost obsessively, using their symbolic significance as a form of desensitization therapy: “The more I see them, the more I paint them, the less I fear them”. In The Standoff, two canines and a snake appear to have reached a stalemate between two equally matched opponents. The snake depicted in Caught has fared less well.

For Ackerman, family and the notion of “home” is a driving force within his work. He has worked full time as an artist since his daughter was born in 2021 at the height of the COVID pandemic. He decided he wanted to be present for his children and has found a way to combine family responsibilities with his artistic endeavors. He has made a series of works on wood panel, Home, depicting naively painted houses under the rays of a sun. There is a sense that his familial relationships infuse and inform much of his work. The charming painting For You, a vase of typically strange looking flowers, appears to be an offering of love.


Working at times within the traditions of Folk and Outsider art, Ackerman frequently utilizes unorthodox materials and found objects in his practice. As a self-taught artist he considers his approach as primitive and unconventional, rejecting the boundaries of traditional culture. He explains his process is driven by intuition and instinct, using acrylic, pencil and spray paint for their immediacy: “When I sit down to work, I typically don’t know what I’m going to paint. I use mediums that dry quickly in order for me to get as much down on the surface while it’s still fresh in my head”. Titles are carefully chosen and he uses text within the works to point towards a “telling” of the story as he imaged it. The viewer is presented with a starting point for their own interpretation. The influence of Folk art can be seen in Ackerman’s expressive mark making, the use of varied and bright colors, repetitive patterns, and symbolic imagery. His style can be decorative at times, especially is his rendition of natural elements.


Francis Bacon asserted that "The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.” At its core, Bacon’s quote suggests that the artist's role extends beyond mere representation or replication. Instead, the artist is tasked with exploring and presenting the complexities and ambiguities of the human experience. In this vein, Ackerman has created a series of paintings that invite viewers to engage with the unknown and the uncertain. This engagement stimulates curiosity and reflection, encouraging viewers to ponder deeper questions about life, existence, and the nature of human relationships. His compellingly imaginative work is clear proof that good narrative art can both challenge and enrich our view of the world.   


Jayne Parker


Hawk + Hive

June 2024

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