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`Etching' With the Sun

JUST what gives one work of art a ``presence'' - and another work none - is the sort of mystery that keeps art interesting.

I cannot really say why the unpretentious works of British artist Roger Ackling in his current show (at Annely Juda Fine Art, London, through June 25) immediately seemed to have this indefinable quality. But there it was, a rightness, an identity, a wordless language as if these quiet shapes of wood, scored with many parallel dark bands (not unlike the lines of an inked etching plate, though much magnified) are to be taken as hints of a man's inexpressible musings, or of some scrupulous, if slightly primitive, activity. These ``found objects'' are unaltered except for the dark lines - Ackling's minimal mark. These works do not give much away.

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The gallery was flooded with morning sunlight, and the dark wooden objects, placed selectively on the white walls, seemed in their element. They did not demand to be isolated from the changing sunshine. If a bright patch were to fall across their surfaces, it would not play visual havoc - as it would with a painting or a print. This suggests that these works, although exhibited like paintings or reliefs, are concerned with something other than the purely visual.

On the other hand, they seem almost dispassionate, their maker hardly pressing the point that they are ``art.'' Take them or leave them.

Here and there, nails protrude from the edges of some pieces. Others have wires or staples attached to them. Others have straight cuts through them, as if they have been sawed at some point to perform a function or to make a join. But if they had a use other than their status now as art objects, it is not clear what it was.

Some works of art storm at you by means of large dimensions: Their size overwhelms. Other works of art - and Ackling's are among them - command attention by just the opposite means; they are noticeable, and every part of them is unavoidable and intense, because they are not large, because they are discreet.

It was only later that I discovered I have seen photographs of some pieces by Ackling before this exhibition, reproduced in the catalog of an exhibition I did not see. It was called ``The Unpainted Landscape.'' Ackling was included alongside such artists as Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long. Like them, he goes out into the landscape to find and make his art, in response to natural forces strategically encountered. Goldsworthy, for example, has used, among many other ``media,'' snow, twigs, and flower petals to make works of art. Long has re-arranged stones found on his walks, or worn tracks in the earth.

ACKLING'S small works are discovered, marked, brought back, and exhibited. While Long and Goldsworthy have often recorded their local and/or temporary works with photographs, Ackling's pieces are their own record. The parallel lines are made by concentrating the sun's rays with a magnifying glass. They are therefore burned into the wood by the most childish or primeval of techniques.

The catalog that accompanies this exhibition is minimal. Its few words include a ``Biography'': ``1947, Born Isleworth, London''; a title: ``Flooded Margins''; a text: ``One glass of water can illuminate the world''; and the information that all the works ``were made in Norfolk, England, 1991-3.'' There is a photograph of a pair of extremely worn sneakers. The rest is photos of works and a list of previous shows and collections. And, really, what more is needed?

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