body shop: eve ackroyd’s sensual paintings depict confident yet unanchored body parts

Eve Ackroyd  is a London-born, New York-living painter of bodies: sections of bodies - torsos and trunks, legs, hands and heads that are not contained by either frame nor narrative.

The works are immensely still, stark and raw, ‘a moment in time captured and expanded’, tightly composed and evoking the heat and sweat of female physicality. Deeply personal and introspective, the paintings resonate with a humanity and dark humour that balances the unnerving sense of tension and unease that pervades each canvas.

Her works are contradictory - the bodies are primitive and sculptural, dreamlike but rooted in the prosaic, formed brusquely through confident brushstroke lines. These are unanchored bodies, sometimes headless, sometimes limbless, floating on backgrounds of muddy washed-out colours, with no easy context granted, the body pure and raw and ordinary. They meet the viewer’s gaze and reflect right back. Ackroyd says ‘I purposefully don't give a narrative because I am not interested in that. I enjoy it when people piece up the heads and bodies, how they might speak about migration or gender, but I don't want to be didactic. I want the work to surprise me.’

Ackroyd’s work is a kind of sensory journey between artist and viewer: her hand makes simple lines, the lines take shape as female bodies and these bodies evoke for the viewer the language of touch, warmth and strength. Her bodies are so close and intimate, evoking the heat and the scent of ripe, full femaleness. Breasts are cradled, knees are drawn, arms fold protectively and embrace; the viewer feels wrapped up and surrendered too. When asked what kind of response Ackroyd would most want people to feel when viewing her work, she says: ‘I want them to feel a reciprocal swell of pleasure, the pleasure which I feel when I am painting. I want them to feel my hand in the work and in the colours that I choose. I want people to take a moment, to consider and allow themselves to engage and feel it with their body.’

Ackroyd’s work begins with drawings. ‘I do draw a huge amount. Everything in my paintings, the strength and the intuitive line, the colour, come from drawing; it is the beginning. I can see it moving to the canvas and it takes away that fright of the blank space. When I look at my tiny little sketches, it feels like they are accessing my unconscious: they feel so close to the inner images that pop up in my head.’ Her earlier work used collage techniques which she then drew from, but now her paintings come directly from her drawing, which, she says, makes the paintings feel ‘much more me. Now I draw, draw, without regard. It is everything in the work.’

In the ten years since Ackroyd graduated from Chelsea College of Art and Design, her themes and motifs have solidified and become signature. Many of her works feature hands - at once grasping, intrusive, menacing. ‘The hands mean so many different things. They began to appear the year of my grad show. I had spent a year in Berlin on exchange and I was really influenced by the German Expressionists: all these bodies engaged, the ritualistic moments of passion without being explicit, and the lone hands started creeping in then.’ The filmmaker Luis Brunel was another inspiration for Ackroyd. ‘I loved his films, strange and funny and awful, his male gaze denying any notion of female desire…but the way he uses hands in shot, the hand encroaching upon the screen. I started using them then and they have been a stronghold throughout.’

Themes in her work include desire, gender, and the myth of female sexuality. ‘I am trying to make visual the hunger, joy and anxiety that is so present in my feelings. I want to paint as a mother and as a woman and it can be so very personal, but the hands are a way of bringing in an outside world into an inner consciousness. They are a method of jolting the viewer.’ Since having two small children, the hands speak too of the interruption upon her time and space. ‘The body is not quite your own after having kids, and this is kind of wonderful and freeing because it suddenly has a different function. Some of my work is about trying to explain the exhaustion and the ridiculousness of sitting in a studio feeling pained about how I can make work in half an hour before I pick up the kids.’

This tension between being a working artist and a mother is an ever-present challenge. ‘I love talking to and reading about female artists, and there are periods where they have often had children, but the bio doesn't begin until they have had a show in a big gallery and have been championed by male gallerists. What about all the years in-between?’ Ackroyd cites Louise Bourgeois, who in 1960 had an important solo show at the Whitney Museum in New York, ‘but for 20 years before, she was living here with kids to raise. She had some success in the 40s but didn't show at all during the 50s and I am interested in that space between. How did she feel? How did she maintain the confidence to keep making work? Who was she talking to about her work, and when success in the recognised form came, how did she feel about that? Did it enliven her work?’

In addition to motherhood, relocation to New York from London has also informed and developed Ackroyd’s paintings. ‘Working from home meant I have had to pursue and explore things I wouldn't have otherwise. It forces you to play in a different way.’ As a result, recent works have been smaller in scale, and more intimate. ‘For about a year I wanted to make a big painting but I look at the smaller work and they have everything I need. I enjoy them for that; they are not loud or overwhelming and I think they are all the more powerful for that.’

Her recent project for Planned Parenthood is an example of the positive effect of constraint and a response to political despair. ‘I made a series of eight small paintings inspired by Pre-Columbian and Babylonian goddesses, imagining humanity’s beginnings as entirely female-intended as a joyful celebration of women’s power and strength. I put them up for sale in the week after the election and donated half of the proceeds to Planned Parenthood.’  These sold out: Ackroyd is working on another series of eight, to be released in the New Year, as well as a solo show at a new gallery ‘Hilde’ in LA. ‘The work will be based upon a translated poem of Rilke’s ‘Apollo’s Archaic Torso’ ‘where I’ll be venturing into making sculptures alongside my paintings of some headless naked men.’

Alongside the practice of painting, her next move might extend to the whole-body process of sculpture making - a new sensory translation of limbs and lines. ‘I have thought about ceramic work a lot, and I look at a lot of sculpture and draw from it. Since moving to NY, when I had my youngest daughter, I would go up to the MET and draw while she was in the buggy. Even now for the goddess series I was drawing from images of sculptures. Sculpture as primary source allows me to bring about these very definite lines - something about their bold presence, reductive, with beautiful colours…I would love to play around with it more.’

The sense of the body, the tactile weight of it, and all that a body brings with it, the loaded agenda and the history and the physical transference from artist’s hand to canvas, is encompassed in her work. ‘When I paint women, it is direct and I cannot separate myself from that. I feel the body as I paint it, I feel the breast, the hand, the hip. I feel it physically. I stayed away from painting women for some time because I felt you had to say something if you are using the female naked body. You have to be able to stand up to that, you can’t be ambivalent or undecided. Bodies can be vulnerable but also powerful and I don't take it lightly.’

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