BY Jeffrey Kastner in Reviews | 06 MAR 94
Featured in
Issue 15

Ida Applebroog

BY Jeffrey Kastner in Reviews | 06 MAR 94

In these dark days for the artistic object, it's a bit unusual to find that a room full of canvases from a 60-something figurative painter should feel like a bellwether for contemporary art. Balancing issues of appropriation, pictorial conventions, and disparate elements of contemporary social thought, Ida Applebroog's work is emblematic of numerous current intellectual and aesthetic concerns. What sets her apart from so many others addressing these issues is her ability to steer clear of the anti-sensual polemic often associated with such explorations. Not content to pull up at the foggy edge of the postmodern swamp that lies between the artist and the narrative space of the representational image, she strikes out to navigate it. Refusing simply to accede to the positioning of the passionately made object as a straw man for critical target practice, she instead reclaims it as territory for purposeful expression.

The show provides a welcome, coherent look at both the formal and contextual progression which Applebroog's work has undergone. The earliest pieces are spare ink drawings on little 3-D vellum constructions like Sure I'm Sure (1979-80), which presages the two-dimensional painted scenes to follow, such as Thank You, Mr President (1983) or Farewell Robert (1986). Basically comic strips turned on their heads, they reference in structure and content an area of cultural iconography derived from American newspaper serial cartoons, in which domestic melodrama is spun out into classical cautionary tales -- ideal terrain for the artist's strategy of conflating the mythic and the mundane.

These simple pieces, like so many of Apple-broog's works, lie at the intersection of numerous interpretative avenues, disrupting both pictorial and contextual conventions. While subverting the techniques and meaning of traditional artistic representation with their crude graphic style and empty scenarios, they're also clearly casting an eye toward the mechanics of contemporary media, like television or cinema, and by extension, the types of interpersonal exchange they reflect.

The portentous narratives of the pieces seem poised to unfurl, but only once they move beyond the limited confines of the frames Applebroog gives us. Like an arbitrarily selected snippet from a strip of movie celluloid, what we get is a moment of stasis, detached from the overall flow of the film that gives it life. In each frame of Sure I'm Sure, for example, the same image is repeated -- curtains drawn back to reveal a man, at precisely the same point in the process of removing his suit coat, standing over a woman in bed whom he's either just left or is about to join. Subtexts of gender politics, communication breakdown and socio-sexual dysfunction of mythic proportions always colour the interaction. Combined with the redundant, lingering gaze of the stalled montage form she adopts, they create the disquieting sense that we're watching the same tragic scenes over and over again. As with Belladonna (1989), a video made by the artist and her daughter Beth B. in which actors perform a kind of visual and verbal rondo with monologues about child abuse, the characters may change but the storylines are disturbingly familiar.

The ominous frozen comic strips introduced into larger compositions during the mid-80s have, by the end of the decade, become fully integrated into the multi-canvas constructions for which Applebroog is best known. In works such as Camp Compazine (1988), she crosses postmodern and classical wires in her depiction of a dozing pensioner absentmindedly munching, Kronos-like, on a tiny person, as sombre suit-jacketed men converse on the opposite panel of the perverse altarpiece. The 'altarpiece' reference is furthered by the inclusion of the strip painting along its top edge, the repetitive cells functioning like a Renaissance predella obliquely detailing the disenfranchisement of the anti-heroic characters memorialised below.

Such considered structural planning is evident to one degree or another in all of her large-scale pictures, as is her palette of bodily green-browns and murky pinks. Even the turkeys inexplicably scattered across the intervening space between the two dominant side panels serve larger compositional purposes. Frequently present in the multi-panel pieces, such examples of apparently incongruous peripheral images are usually rendered in a pocket of pictorial space just slightly askew from the dominant plane of the composition, suggesting the formal mechanics of film editing, like lap dissolves caught in the visually disorienting grey area of contact between one image and the next.

The most recent works on display, from Applebroog's Marginalia series (1991), reveal a shift in formal strategy, but not in overall direction. Freestanding canvases placed around the room, the series depicts the kinds of unusual characters seen in the combine works -- a little girl dolled up in curlers, a man whose head is wrapped in bandages -- now cut loose from their original context and left to fend for themselves. Liberated from the disturbing environments of the painted scenarios, they nevertheless all seem to bear the physical and emotional scars of their passage. Only one seems whole, as yet undamaged -- on a canvas which lies alone flat on the floor, a newborn baby. But even it is getting ready: legs pulled up protectively to its chest, a small hand covers its new eyes.