Sophie Allgårdh on Markus Åkesson
Catalouge text to the exhibition "In Between" at Pelle Unger Gallery
Stockholm, SE, 2011
Sophie Allgårdh is the curator at the Thielska Gallery, Stockholm. She has previously worked as an art critic for Svenska Dagbladet. She has written a number of books on contemporary art. She often contributes to exhibition catalogues and anthologies, and has a long career as a freelance curator. In 2007 she curated a critically-acclaimed exhibition; Öyvind Fahlström: Med världen som spelplan at the Mjellby Art Museum.
Rites of passage have long preoccupied Markus Åkesson. They may range from small but distinct shifts from one phase to the next to more complex leaps, such as from childhood to adulthood. His series contain a thought-through dramaturgy. The horizontal format of the canvases reminds the beholder of cinematic stills with recurring motifs in one and the same suite, perceived from different angles and variations in the color scale, as if to elicit the ambiance by power of suggestion, through a colored filter on the lens of a camera.
The paintings function as rough drafts, synopses for a narrative. Rites of Passage depicts a young girl's preparations for puberty and her role as a woman. Tired of expectations, she rebels. The make-up mannequin on which she was supposed to practice maquillage application, is brutally covered in war paint: a thick mask of white theater grease on the face, jaws and chin, leaving sharp contours topped by a layer of spackled blue. All the charm has vanished, been reversed. The powerful mask calls to mind something frightening, wild and savage.
The mannequin bust holds court on the bedroom shelf alongside a gaping plastic monster and a toy elephant. It has become the projection repository for all her aggressions and has taken on a life of its own – as a voodoo doll. Whatever happens to it is also going to happen to the person it represents. Using thin oil-paint glazes, Markus Åkesson provokes our discomfort. His interiors, in which the mannequin bathes in a chilly pale pink, or green or blood-red light stresses this young woman's anxiety about approaching adulthood. She is aware of what is expected of her, and wants to grow up on her own terms. Given the option, she would probably have preferred to remain in the doll playing stage for a few more years. In a couple of the canvases, she has been released from the grip of the mannequin and turned her focus on herself. Standing at the bathroom mirror she applies the same brutal makeup to her own face. The outside world no longer exists; she is preoccupied with her ritual behavior. Another canvas in the same series shows a boy of the same age. Not at the bathroom mirror, he has escaped out of doors. He manifests his masculinity by covering his body in the paint of a tribal warrior, standing at the shore of a glittering green body of water, surrounded by a night that is dark as pitch. The protagonist of Rites of Passage is Markus Åkesson ́s own daughter, although the scenes have sometimes been reinterpreted and distorted. The boy in the woods is one of his sons. The name of the suite mirrors the title of French ethnographer, sociologist and folklorist Arnold van Gennep's seminal work Les rites de passage from 1909. This study burst the bubble of preconceptions about other cultures, proving instead that rites of passage are similarly structured and fill roughly the same functions all over the world. The passage can be divided into three phases, the second of which is of the greatest psychological interest. It occurs when the individual's psyche is hanging in the balance, not yet having accepted a new identity and in flux.
Markus Åkesson introduces us to the young girl and her mannequin in precisely this ambivalent intermediate state. His paintings are detailed, with emphasis on facial expressions and other fine points. One of the canvases with the mannequin also contains a boxed set of butterflies , a delicate presaging of his Insomnia suite. Markus Åkesson's camera lens is always present, but instead of projecting his photos right onto the canvas, he uses printouts of elaborately arranged scenes as his studies. He recreates dramaturgical and compositional references from the world of the cinema with brushstrokes, using light and shadow, color and shape as gentle invocations.
The slowness of the process makes his canvases stand out as topically inanimate in a day when we are drowning in digital images and a constant flow of information. Insomnia is the Latin term for sleeplessness, a state of receptivity to hallucinations and waking dreams. In this thematic series Markus Åkesson explores the border between the conscious and unconscious. There are points of contacts with Freud's interpretations of dreams, and with the surrealists and their interest in waking dreams, rêves lucides. Recent years have also seen the development of Internet-based subcultures of people who wish to approach the unconscious and out of body experiences, without drugs. In Insomnia, a swarm of grey-brown moths have flown in and, like the birds in the Hitchcock film these unwelcome nocturnal butterflies symbolize the unreal, the threatening. Sometimes they appear deceptively two by two, but after abrupt changes of scene they suddenly stream uncontrollably into the canvases. There is one painting in which two moths have settled on the nude shoulders of a middle-aged man with a glazed look in his eyes. Mentally he is in a world of his own, and pays no heed to the insects crawling on his torso. Åkesson's view of reality is dark, slightly distorted, and at times paranoid.
In The Woods a boy has lost his compass and is bewilderedly navigating in the direction of the
sunlight in a glade. We find ourselves thrown into a visual borderland between blinding light
and deep darkness, as well as between rationality and overwhelming emotion, between
wakefulness and unrestricted dreaming. The nocturnal moths, averse to light, are waiting
sleepily on the shadowy side: unreality seeping in.