Jeffrey Ackerman’s “Artifact and Artifice” at the Maine Jewish Museum is one of the heftiest shows I have seen anywhere in years. Ackerman’s sculptures and paintings reflect an extraordinary density of iconography placed with intense surrealist sensibility in a Wunderkammer – a cabinet of curiosities.

Ackerman’s narrative threads and traces lead us from Joseph Beuys and Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth through the Old Testament to Greece and far deeper on a path past Argonauts and Sphinxes.

Ackerman’s paintings feature a fine surface of myriad oil strokes so terse and tight that they feel like tempera. While the obvious connection is the odd narrative surrealism of Giorgio de Chirico and his brother Alberto Savinio, the flow of the surface marks among the complexity of their overloaded structures is more like the grand compositions of Thomas Hart Benton.

While the official surrealist approach was unpremeditated “automatic writing,” the best remembered version of surrealism was the tack taken by artists who made well-painted renditions of weird scenes. Surrealism generally first brings to mind Dali’s melting clocks or Magritte’s train coming out of the fireplace rather than Andre Masson’s scribbled fish.

“The Deal,” 2016, oil on panel, 31 by 22 inches.

Ackerman’s work, however, is not simply seeking an uncanny response in the viewer. His iconographical tsunamis have more in common with, say, Philip Guston’s narrative oddities or Beuys’ recognizable but practically impenetrable iconography.

It could be said that Ackerman’s sensibilities stem less from any individual artist than from walking through the 19th-century painting gallery in the Metropolitan Museum of Art or an antique store. In fact, Ackerman works with his wife, Kathy Weinberg (also an artist who has a separate, but simultaneous show at the museum), to restore and conserve antique furniture in places like the Met and the Museum of Fine Arts. And he worked for years as the director of an antiques gallery in New York City.

For most anyone interested even remotely in classical painting, Ackerman’s imagery holds the door open. We know (or at least suspect) the story of Diana and Acteon or the sexy Salome with John the Baptist’s head on a platter. But Ackerman (with whom I have served on the editor board of the Maine Arts Journal: The UMVA Quarterly) uses any recognizable scene merely as a starting point; and from that context, we can more easily see if he is remaining on point or wandering off on his own.

In “Touching the Hem,” for example, we recognize Beuys by his hat, but that he is reaching to a woman’s fine golden dress hem and tearing it while she wears it? Well, there is a story there, or, at the least, something is going on. As we wonder, we are distracted by Ackerman’s surface and his fine attention to the golden light edging the objects in the scene.

“Un-Still Life,” 2015, ink and gouache on paper, 10 by 7 inches.

Ackerman’s painted light, in fact, becomes a leitmotif on the level of de Chirico’s dream-cast long shadows. Ackerman’s golden edge offers something like a firelight zing. We get the two together in the exhibition’s first painting, “The Deal.” A figure (“Angel Eyes” from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”?): His jacket glows with color-changing light. Outside, his shadow is cast on a de Chirico-esque tower. A wanted poster and an Italian landscape and an odd narrative triangle make for a surreal setting, like a “spaghetti Western” reversed – this made in America and talking about Italian painting and culture.

While Ackerman’s images particularly reward those of us who have spent time learning iconography, there is plenty for anyone to see: They don’t rely on other peoples’ stories. The trick is finding this for yourself. It came to me with “The Prismatic Bezel,” a painting featuring a man’s arm holding out a lighter for a woman’s cigarette. They touch glasses and somehow the drinks feel recognizable, contemporary. Hers is garnished with a lemon while his features an olive with a jalapeno. She wears pearls we see elsewhere (particularly in the excellent suite of study/prep drawings hung in the side gallery). Her hand is a Sphinx’s claw. The lighter’s flame leaps into golden birds that transform into a hellish red wallpaper reminiscent of Bosch or Ensor. Somehow taking the lead in all this is a blue cufflink, which repeats in the painting of Beuys hanging next to it, echoing the red cufflink, for example, in “The Deal.”

Ackerman’s terra cotta sculpture “Ananke” stands 89 inches tall.

At some point, it becomes clear there are art history references, painting references and personal preferences of the artist. It’s a startlingly honest approach to iconography and symbolism. Ackerman puts his personal touch on shared space: It’s what we expect of artists – presenting culture through their own subjective lens. But rarely is it done so richly, so completely or with so much nuance and depth.

While the Morrill-based artist goes deep in the culture of narrative painting, even more unusual – and impressive – is Ackerman’s sculpture. His works are generally based on the logic of the figure or portrait busts, but instead of a figurative vocabulary, Ackerman’s visual forms come from important furniture details and architectural styles reaching back thousands of years.

Ackerman’s sculptures vary between terra cotta and silvered bronze. Their wit sometimes matches the paintings, like with “Neptune,” a temple-headed bust with a cigar-smoking lobster claw for a hand. But at their best, Ackerman’s sculptures are beyond the ambition of most any other sculpture in America. The extraordinary terra cotta “Ananke” (named for one of the Greek primordial deities), for example, at 89 inches tall is no less monumental in its sculptural and iconographic ambitions than its vast figurative scale – particularly for a ceramic work. It’s a tour de force, practically peerless in its invention and formal density.

“Artifact and Artifice” is punctuated by Ackerman’s extraordinary sculptures, but in many ways, we see it best beginning with his drawings and simple studies. These prefigure many of his paintings, but with much less iconographic clutter to knock down the clarity. As well, they reveal his wit: “Un-still Life” is a study in which a cigar-smoking bearded man holds up a pearl under a light bulb to compare it to a temple-headed sculpted figure (one of Ackerman’s own, no doubt) with a peachy still-life body and hair of a pile of eggs. The spheres playfully proliferate, and we can easily see that, instead of telling a specific story, Ackerman is playing, considering, experimenting.

Ackerman is at his best when he opens the floodgates to his vast intellect. He doesn’t tell stories; he references them. In that sense, he’s far easier to see than his density advertises. It’s all flow and play, and the personal approach gives us permission to see them with our subjectivity as guide. It’s what surrealism was always supposed to be.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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