Two in One: Eve Ackroyd On Painting the Lives of Women in Their Minds and Out of Their Bodies

The artist’s recently opened solo exhibition at New York City’s TURN Gallery reveals the many shared intimate moments and worlds we inhabit, breathing fresh air into figurative art.

Eve Ackroyd and her dog Ace at her East London art studio in April 2024. Photo courtesy of TURN Gallery

There’s something both matter-of-fact and mysterious about the paintings that make up Eve Ackroyd’s new exhibition Second Body at TURN Gallery in Manhattan. Many of the works feature women engaged in acts of the everyday, from cocktail talk at a party of peers to cradling a newborn that’s fast asleep. Other pieces show animals that dwell in a place we think is a neighboring known or lead us into enchanted nighttime lands from which darkened dreams are made. The works in this intimate presentation are largely based on the artist’s varied South London lives as a mother-of-three, wife, sister, friend and neighbor.

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Indeed, there is a shuttling and shifting among character identities, relationships, activities and amorphous locales depicted in Ackroyd’s moody and memorable pictures. They deal in the many interior and exterior worlds we inhabit—intimating there is an intrinsic overlap between the two, which essentially makes them one. Like the premise in Daisy Hildyard’s essay collection The Second Body, which suggests we survive in a movable symbiosis, tethered to each other upon networked grounds, Ackroyd’s art presents a fluid field where the narrow straits of you versus me transform into the open ocean of the collective, cooperative us—right here, over there and even far beyond the comfort of our front door. And without narrative, Ackroyd’s art ponders a remarkable moment between object and subject, between what we first see and how we fundamentally feel about it, as we slowly absorb her placid meditation on people both in and out of place.

A red hued painting of a cat pawing at a sleeping woman
Eve Ackroyd, One Window Lit Up, Pelican House, 2024. Oil on linen, 44” x 50”. Courtesy of TURN Gallery

While most of the inhabitants in each of the deceptively simple works on view seem familiar and safely set ashore, often they provide viewers with an opaque, shorthand idea of who they represent and where they reside. The large red-hued show-opener, One Window Lit Up, Pelican House, is a good example. In the work, a young woman sleeps on a bed, her sinewy arms wrapped around a glowing white pillow—where her mind dreams—marking a key focal point for both the viewer and the small cat perched upon her back, one eye fixed on her face. In the background, a large tower looms with the featured titular “window lit up.” While the building is based on a real 1970s public housing tower that stands behind the artist’s new backyard studio, it’s dramatically simplified but prominently featured among the less distinct, shorter structures nearby. Since it is nighttime, most activity has waned but as the nocturnal pet taps its human’s shoulder, we feel the triangle of connection among the bodies—even though we can’t see who activates that single, lit window of the high-rise room. The piece emanates muted magic to me. Saturated in a deep, warm, ruddy pink, a tonal quality that mirrors the dreamer’s internal realm, it is an inviting but ultimately dark place, where quiet life unfolds. The trapezoidal, whitewashed duvet mound, rectangular pillow and lit square up high tell us that we are all connected by space, shape, energy and proximity, even if our modus operandi—consciousness, deep sleep or frisky feline shenanigans—are on different schedules. It’s hard to say how we convey our duties in this interdependent set-up, but the painting at least presents such reverberating networks in minimal form, highlighting the distinct possibility that we are all linked together.

A pink hued painting of three women at a party
Eve Ackroyd, The Party, 2024. Oil on linen, 32” x 37 3/4”. Courtesy of TURN Gallery

“Home” is a key subject for Ackroyd and a point of departure for the greater meaning in each work. While never explicitly described, the artist lays in a delicate line or geometric form to give us a faint sense of a domestic place for figures to lean, lie, sit, drink or rest. But when the figures engage in such positions or activities, they are often disembodied—arms on table cloths in After Dinner, talking heads in The Party, a couple bisected by bed covers in Lovers Under a Striped Duvet. It’s as if we get to experience a piece of these home lives, never knowing the whole story or what the characters are thinking, feeling or let-it-being in the space. Of course, that unknown is what creates intrigue for the viewer and reflects the uncertainty of human existence today—or in any age. The best sense of home that I get from spending time with Ackroyd’s paintings is gained primarily from the people who occupy her pictures, giving those spaces life together. It is their union—however fractured or partial—that actuates the space and tells me I’m home.

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Some other interesting works in the exhibition are those that feature only animals. Night Dogs is especially riveting. Framed in a jet-black doorway on the left and an almost prison-like window grid to the right, two foxy wolfish creatures, enveloped in tempered ochre light from behind, sit and look out, but at what we cannot see. Are they domestic sentries keeping guard of the home? Or did they wander in from the forest to our well-provisioned oasis, taking a break from the perils of survival in the natural world? Perhaps they are symbols for our want of and reprieve from the wild—and from our domestic trappings. It is impossible to say but almost possible to see in the eyes of these serene, alert creatures.

A yellow hued painting of two backlit dogs standing in a doorway
Eve Ackroyd, Night Dogs, 2024. Oil on linen, 34 1/4” x 26”. Courtesy of TURN Gallery

One painting in the show I particularly love is Ackroyd’s Childhood Friends. Bathed in a mustard tone, it features a pair of pairs: two house cats, red and blue, perched in front of and behind two women in the abounding yellow hue. Hands drape around the lower woman’s neck, one clasped to a fresh glowing cigarette, the mood inviting us to pull up a chair—for stories may be told. There’s an interesting interplay of color and form in this piece. The almond eyes of both ladies—red for one and blue for the other—connect them to the divine correspondingly-colored feline spirits nearby that act like mirrored metaphoric offspring or saintly sage advisors. The painting is a fluid commingling of form among all the work’s populants that explores the central themes in the artist’s work, including a developed “sense of belonging,” as well as Hildyard’s ideas about our connection to all living things and “bodies breaking into one another.”

A yellow hued painting of two women's faces with a red cat behind them
Eve Ackroyd, Childhood Friends, 2023. Oil on linen, 18” x 16”. Courtesy of TURN Gallery

I recently spoke with Eve Ackroyd about her interests, her work and the lives she leads—and loves—in London.

Where and when did you create the works in the new show at TURN Gallery?

When we moved from New York back to London, I had another studio—about a twenty-minute bike ride from home. But then I started working in a freestanding studio we built in my little garden back in October. That’s where all the paintings for this show were made—mostly between December through the end of March over winter.

With eleven- and fourteen-year-old children—and now a two-year-old toddler—how do you get work done in the studio? 

Both having and raising a baby while working has taken me back ten years—and what I came out of two years ago. I remember thinking when I was heavily pregnant that “I have so much time at the moment in the studio. I have so much time to play around, to go see shows, to read.” I relished it because I thought, “Come summer, I’m going to have a newborn and I’ll be, well…” Time is the thing that you lose, and so I’ve been retracing that a little, but with the knowledge that I’ll get some form of that time back again. It’s the long days in the studio I used to have that are gone for a while. They are not going to happen soon, so a large part of this show was made in the evening—that’s my nightlife. (Laughs)

After you eat dinner, spend time with your older kids watching television and put the youngest to bed, you head to the studio around nine o’clock. What happens then?

It’s pitch black out at that time, so I hold up my phone flashlight and walk down the stone path out back. It’s an important transition—that walk to my little studio. Inside, I chuck my clothes into a corner and put on work jeans. Then, I inhale that smell—the turpentine—and mix a fresh batch of paints. At that moment, I know I’m about to make art. It’s funny, though. With the glass windows looking out into this very dark garden, I feel a little bit scared, but only briefly because I can see my house and family. But having these ideas during the daytime, wanting so much to make these images, sketching them and working out what colors I want to make; by the time I get to my studio, I really go for it and kind of lose my sense of time.

Even though you’re ready to let loose in the studio, do you feel a psychic tug from your kids and husband? I see something analogous to that with the cat pawing the woman’s back in One Window Lit Up, Pelican House or the paired cats staring at the two women in Childhood Friends. When you’re back in the house, do you feel like all eyes are on you, that you’re in demand?

When my kids were younger, I began painting a lot of cats with figures, and I do think they were about mothers with babies. I had a strong desire to paint children, but I just couldn’t work out a way to incorporate them that felt honest or real. So, there are a lot of women in these intimate spaces with cats bothering them, and they were, as you described, “insinuating themselves” into the human space. It was really enjoyable to paint but the relationship depicted was a little bit fraught—full of love, but also tension. That’s what I think I was exploring. The animals that appear most recently are dogs and foxes—they’re from my walks in the evening. Those are the two creatures that I see the most along with cats.

When I step into the house, I don’t know if it’s like “all eyes are on you” as a mother, but I do feel that in the studio when I’m painting—that’s the exposing part, like performance pressure. I think, as a mother on the other hand, it’s like you’re suddenly completely unimportant and no one’s looking at you, yet you’re in demand. But it’s not you necessarily—it’s just your role. That’s true for many parents. We’re lucky to have parents who did that—had that love, right?

Indeed, we’re very lucky. You’ve talked with me about how you derive your imagery from a kind of autobiographical point of view—from all your roles in life. Is that true for most of your art?

Mostly true. It’s funny you brought up Childhood Friends, though. That one was completely made up. I started drawing these two faces and I just wanted to manifest the idea of two people at a party. I felt separate from them, like, I can’t penetrate what they are—and they’re kind of intimidating. I wanted to make them do that, but I got to describe this complete intimacy, and then the cats came in after, acting as a kind of a formal play—a doubling—between them.

It’s always exciting when I’ve got multiple figures in a painting, and I imagine where they’re looking or what face they are unconsciously making. Then I start to paint that gaze or that turn of a lip—and it’s kind of like, “Ohhh, this!” My job is to guide how you’re experiencing these people and what they’re trying to present to you. In that painting, one of the cats is just politely, passively sitting—absorbing all their energy, which is very strong. Just like children do. Just like we all do.

Second Body at TURN Gallery is on view through June 27.

 

Two in One: Eve Ackroyd On Painting the Lives of Women in Their Minds and Out of Their Bodies