Polly Apfelbaum: Face (Geometry)(Naked) Eyes
Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis
By Lorraine Heitzman
Vibrant reds and yellows predominate in the joyful mise-en-scene created by Polly Apfelbaum currently on view at the Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis. Ushering the visitor into the installation are four very large and brilliantly colored flat woven rugs with white and red eyes set against a yellow field. They cover most of the floor, successfully undermining the usual formality and sterility of the white box. Ringing the perimeter walls on a painted white band are one hundred and six multicolored hand built plaques and bisecting the main gallery are two rows of red ceramic beads, suspended on long yellow threads. The space terminates against a red wall that sets off several hefty, rounded wood shapes.
Into this fanciful yet powerful environment, Apfelbaum sits down to join in conversation with Connie Butler, chief curator at the Hammer Museum. If you were among those who were there for The Carpet Sessions on Sunday, September 25th, you were treated to a discussion that proved to be every bit as stimulating as the work and even more illuminating in respect to the artist’s process. The two have known each other for years, their histories overlapping; Apfelbaum attended SUNY at Purchase, New York, in the seventies and in 1994 had a one person show at the Neuberger Museum of Art one year after Butler became the new curator. Their easy rapport made for a relaxed, wide ranging discussion that revealed the artist’s sense of humor and showcased a self-confidence borne of her many years of art making, defying convention and finding success in what she loves to do.
When the opportunity to show at the Ben Maltz Gallery presented itself, Apfelbaum planned to use the entire space for her site-specific installation. While conceiving the show, Apfelbaum explained that she was thinking of California and associated yellow and red with the “new age”. These colors embodied the spiritual introspection of the new age for her and became a unifying, thematic element, beginning with the rugs. She has long been closely identified with floor works, recognizing the floor as a physical and subversive space. Originally this was not only a conceptual move to expand art to fully utilize three-dimensional space; it did two other things as well: it brought color up from the ground and, she admitted somewhat self-deprecatingly, it gave her a canvas that no one else wanted. Early in her career, while other artists in group shows were fighting over valuable wall space, she had more real estate. For this exhibit, she designed the rugs and had them fabricated by an artisan in Oaxaca, Mexico. Another inspiration was the mosaics she observed in Italy in 2012 that referenced mythologies, astrology, and spiritualism. After her year in Rome, she spoke of feeling like a time traveler, immersed in other cultures and historical time periods but revisiting her older work as well.
Apfelbaum had the idea of making at least one hundred ceramic plaques, or “mug shots” (as she laughingly referred to them) to wrap around the central space. This is the first time the artist has installed ceramics on walls although she learned to work with clay years ago. She sees them each as faces and placed them evenly spaced in a continuous line at eye level. If you fail to see the human reference it is understandable, but they clearly reveal her love of tactility and the physicality of materials. They are crudely shaped, mostly flat slabs glazed in riotous colors and bring attention to the walls in a sort of musical notation.
The minimalist beaded curtain activates the space in other ways. Yellow threads suspended from the ceiling end with a single handmade bead. The string connects the ceiling to the floor, bringing color downwards and the implied rectangular shape of the double row of thread and beads also divides the space from front to back. It is not much of a barrier, but visually it suggests a horizontal connection as much as a vertical one. It also introduces a linear quality when viewed against the rugs, another element that contrasts and emphasizes the floor. Since her show at the Neuberger, Apfelbaum has been interested in having interventions with architecture, meaning, I think that she wants to use the specific interior space to full advantage incorporating walls, floors and ceiling as well as the space in between.
And lastly, in the red gallery space, there is a row of wood wall sculptures. Previously exhibited, these sculptures were designed by the artist and handmade by an industrial pattern maker. They are simple, forthright shapes and in the context of this show take on the appearance of iconic religious symbols. If the rug filled gallery is the nave, the deeply painted room implies the apse or sacristy and anchors the installation through placement, the heaviness of the color and solidity of the sculptures. Whether or not Apfelbaum intended the connection to church architecture, a corollary structure exists and works to her favor.
What are her underlying influences? Apfelbaum mentions growing up in Philadelphia and being impressed by the democratic installation at the Barnes Collection where Dr. Barnes famously showed his vast collection of American Indian pottery, Pennsylvania Dutch metalwork, furniture, Renoirs, Matisse murals and Cézannes side by side, salon style. From floor to ceiling, all art was considered equal without a hierarchy. The absence of a hierarchy is important to Apfelbaum and led to her use of found objects and textiles, beginning with buying fabric scraps. She may never have studied textiles, but with the ready availability of scrap materials in New York City, she taught herself how to use them in her installations. Apfelbaum’s love of experimentation, coupled with what she calls her contrariness began to find voice in her work. Another Philly influence was the celebratory 1972 Gene Davis striped painting in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Franklin’s Footpath. For Apfelbaum, the connection to her later floor pieces and interest in liquid forms and fluidity is clear. Other important early influences were Judy Pfaff, Ree Morton, Carl Andre, Morris Louis and in general, abstraction and expression. Although she thinks of herself as a very structured person, her history is not one of a linear progression; she returns to systems and materials, coming full circle, gleefully time traveling. “Art is not an easy story”, she proclaims, but she sure makes it look fun.
Check the Ben Maltz Gallery calendar for upcoming Carpet Sessions with the artist in attendance.