In recent years Frank Ammerlaan has diversified his practice to include sculpture, photography and video. Painting remains central to his investigations, but in a curious way – simultaneously in the foreground and relegated to the fringes. His explorations into different media open on to each other like chapters in a book, and only occasionally does a painting need to be a painting. This kinship that exists between all his works produces self-reliant images that emerge at the borderlines between media, materials and processes.
In his recent series of paintings, Ammerlaan creates looming surfaces that look deceptively calm from afar. As we move around the canvas, however, the surface changes, producing an uncanny sense of marginal motion in the periphery of our vision. As when walking in a pregnant misty dusk, when forms seem too shy to emerge fully and one can only discern nebulous pulsations of light – perhaps electrical discharges from distant storms, a speeding vehicle or the promise of a cosy bar – the atmosphere wraps itself around the beholder like a premonition. But a premonition of what, is never made clear. We are left with a sense that an event in the foreground has been purged or, on the contrary, is just about to materialise.
Ammerlaan seems to care little about provoking powerful emotional effects in his paintings. Instead, the focus is on the barely perceptible events experienced at the margins of the psyche or at the threshold of an everyday occurrence. This move away from a position of centrality to more peripheral tensions transpires as a key concern for the artist and is also obliquely reflected in his process of composition: often radiating around a centre of lighter colour, thick arcs of bright pigments recalling fresh bruises on skin trace its contours until they reach the borders of the canvas. This stage is short-lived: before the paint is allowed to dry, disciplined yet frenetic strokes level out the wet paint’s boundaries until the arteries of thick colour are diffused into a vivid, rainbow-like image. But an undefined quality gushes out, jerking at the edges of certainty. In relation to materials and process, the making involves one factual decision after another and yet it remains impossible to predict the end result or pin down at which precise moment the painting took its ‘final’ shape.
What could seem a keen interest in the purely metaphysical properties of changeability as a concept, however, carries a more grounded preoccupation – a resistance to authoritarian attitudes. This becomes more evident in another series of paintings. Here, the artist employs a similar painting process, but stretches fluorescent or metallic threads across the surface of the canvas. The fragile strings, strained almost to their limits, capture the light around them, disappearing into the background and blending with the colours as one walks around the canvas. The geometrical shapes traced by the threads resemble parts of metal gates or fences, and seem to deny access to, or on the contrary, act as anchors for the viewer by organising the space into recognisable forms. This gesture of organisation illuminates the subtleties of a human psyche that resists any mute encounter with the sublime, with what is beyond our comprehension or control. The artist’s interest in the unrepresentable and unknown is more complex and entangled: whilst distrusting any form of authority is a subtle political statement, the artist also hesitates in relation to more romantic notions of sublimity such as nature.
Obliquely referenced throughout Ammerlaan’s works is a certain sense of defeat in the face of the natural world. His small sculptures, for example, resemble models of TV antennae, and like their real life counterparts, are often shown at the edges of a space. These miniature ‘antennae’, however, are engineered into new shapes, making all the more evident the alien quality of real giant receptors, whose inert look belies the constant buzzing of the intangible exchanges of information that coagulate as our daily communications. When we drive by fields that are densely populated with these machines, it seems that a civilisation of robotic trees has found a home on our land. And yet exactly when we think we have moved as far away from nature as is possible, we realise that these technologies replicate the function of leaves. Each model comes a step closer to the ultimate dream of human self-sufficiency, attempting but inevitably failing to learn the secret power of plants to transform and harness energy from the sun and the earth.
Ammerlaan’s own alchemical speculations are powerfully formulated in his most recent series of paintings executed entirely in chemicals. The special combination of these chemicals enables him to reproduce a mundane feature of our urban environment – oil spills – but once fixed on the canvas, they become excruciatingly beautiful to look at. Poignant, almost holographic colours spray from the black background of the canvas, change and merge and reemerge again. This gives the surface the quality of a living creature, but one whose intentions we need to be wary of. Seen in the company of other series of paintings, their noxious nature is more palpable and even aggressive. Our desire to succumb to this beauty is halted by our impending realisation of what these marks represent; it is a beauty found at the margins of violence and desire. Once again, the artist’s profound resistance to forms of capitulation or even muteness emerges here as a strong undercurrent.
Within Ammerlaan’s production, his interest in exploring the concept of change as a political tool for resistance is often tainted with doubt. His photographic works, for example, often capture a precarious or bewildering balance of elements – a crowd of flies on a rock, forming for a very brief moment a perfect triangular ‘deployment’, for example. In his most personal series of photographs, the artist has recorded his grandmother on her death bed. There is no tragedy; she is dressed in a pink pyjamas, still wearing her glasses in front of her closed eyes, and with her erect arm holding up a rosary. This image of startling simplicity bears hefty questions: what does it mean to face the unknown? How does one avoid succumbing to the terror experienced when standing on the threshold of perennial change?