Humility and Simplicity: Roger Ackling’s Calling Card

“Make something for your pocket,” Roger Ackling told his students. “Make something to go in a drawer.” The suggestion speaks to the charmingly personal and humble nature of the late artist’s widely respected work. His final pieces are on view in the aptly titled “Simple Gifts,” an exhibition in London.

On the topic of humility: the “gifts” in question aren’t what you think. The pieces on display at Annely Juda Fine Art are not the artist’s gifts to the world, so to speak, but artwork that Ackling created with gifts he received from friends and family. The English-born artist, who passed away last year at the age of 66, was known for a particular method that’s reminiscent of those employed in prehistoric art. Using a small handheld magnifying glass, he concentrated sunlight to burn geometric patterns onto driftwood and other found objects and scraps. 

So the gifts that he was given—pieces of wood, board, and string—were simple, indeed, and what he made of them was extraordinary. By harnessing the power of the sun, Ackling brought the vastness of outer space to small-scale objects. He documented something seemingly intangible, a ray of light that has traveled millions of miles, into, well, something to go into a pocket or a drawer. 

But it’s not likely that you’d want to hide one of the exquisite works from “Simple Gifts” in a drawer. These pieces represent the final phase of a fascinating 40-year career that came to a premature close in 2014. Ackling attended St Martins School of Art in the late 1960s and spent decades of his life, from the early ‘80s through 2012, teaching at Chelsea School of Art in London. Whether fitting in an early-morning session before class or traveling around Japan with his wife, Ackling took his art with him: he only needed some time alone, his trusted magnifying glass, and a strong beam of sunshine to work.

It’s unsurprising to learn that he was a source of creative inspiration to generations of students; in his final show at the Chelsea Space gallery, he insisted on showing his work alongside that of his graduating students “so they could be judged together”—and that he curated and installed his own exhibitions. Humility and simplicity were Ackling’s calling card. He accepted his students as his contemporaries, took on grunt work at the galleries, and, in recognizing the power of the cosmos and learning how to translate it on a smaller human scale, the artist bowed before the universe itself.

—Bridget Gleeson


Roger Ackling: Simple Gifts” is on view at Annely Juda Fine Art, London, Apr. 1–May 7, 2015.

Follow Annely Juda Fine Art on Artsy.

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