Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati
44 East 6th Street,
513 345 8400
6 December 2003 to 29 February 2004
The “feminine” used to be equated with fragility, delicacy, and quiet refinement. Polly Apfelbaum’s works are all of these things while also revealing the artist’s capacity to subvert such equations and redefine “women’s work.”
Her midcareer survey curated by Claudia Gould and Ingrid Schaffner and organized by the Institute for Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Currently to be seen at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, the exhibition showcases a remarkable range of material in works from the late 1980s to the present, from Daisy Chain (1989/2003) in identical 8 ½-foot rectangles made up of wooden shamrocks, flowers and club shapes to her latest contribution, Oblong (2003), an installation of wallpaper covered with one-inch ovals in a repeating sequence of rainbow colors.
But it is Apfelbaum’s “fallen paintings” that most captivate attention. These pieces, velvety fabric dyed with blotches of vibrant color, ooze across the first floor of the exhibition. Painstakingly pieced together by hand, their distinct patterning is similar to a quilt. Even the more chaotic Reckless, or Split (both 1998) have an organic rhythm that suggests Mother Nature had a hand in their creation. With titles like Bubbles and Blossom, Apfelbaum’s work is playful, girlish and feminine with a capital “F.”
But “feminine” as a concept encompasses so much more than smooth fabrics, handiwork and delicacy. To be feminine can also mean sensual, sexual and sly. It begets intelligence and strength. It means pushing the boundaries of one’s position and being-or at least trying to be-all things to all people.
To convey these ideas successfully, Apfelbaum indiscriminately pulls from, questions and builds on the traditions of postwar abstraction: the drippings of Pollock, the stained effects of Frankenthaler and Louis, the repetition and serialization of minimalism. Apfelbaum tears down the modalities of media. She calls her floor pieces “fallen paintings”, but their structures and placement are akin to sculpture, while her process is more like printmaking. In this, it is as if Apfelbaum has created work that really is all things to all people.
Apfelbaum injects into traditional abstraction materials, shapes and words that have personal and emotional connotations. Pocketful of Posies (1990) is a splotch of cartoonish, 1960s-inspired flower cutouts made of steel and placed in a group on the gallery floor. The material is minimalist; it’s cold and manufactured. But the flower shapes provide the organic element that makes the material warm, the shapely curves prominent making the piece playful and sexy; more Austin Powers than Carl Andre.
This balancing of the playful and the serious is a big part of what makes Apfelbaum’s work so interesting. The seriousness comes from her technical skill, the careful choice of materials, and her arrangement of parts to create a comprehensive whole with many meanings. The playfulness often comes from the shapes she chooses and punning titles.
Title Page (2003) is installation wallpaper that lists in rainbow colors titles of some of Apfelbaum’s works. The enormity of this display – the wall is two stories high and about twenty feet long – forces you to take it seriously, to view it as a list of accomplishments or rolling credits. (This image is reproduced on the inside cover of the exhibition catalogue). But the playful nature of the titles like “Lady and the Tramp” and their cotton candy colors beg us not to take anything too seriously and remind us that even intelligent art is, to some degree, decorative.