French Folk Techniques Transformed into Contemporary Art
Written by Betty Ann Brown
Circular shields pierced with tiny holes and adorned with ribbons, beads, and colored threads. Surreal Tree Women sparkling with tiny points of light. Decorative fields of dense designs, unfolding over undulating surfaces of paper and pattern. Marthe Aponte’s art is visually delightful and conceptually intriguing.
Aponte came to artmaking relatively late in her career. She had always drawn and painted but it was not until 2000–after she retired from her position as a language professor–that she found time to focus on her creativity. She was drawn to the historic French tradition of picote: the creation of images by perforating thick paper with needles and awls. Some of her images are figurative, such as the large Joshua Tree flanked by two females representing the mythological Fates. Other compositions are largely abstract, like her recent black shields adorned with spidery flowers and serpentine leaves.
In terms of content, Aponte’s work ranges from decorative abstractions to multivalent figural compositions. She deploys motifs from European traditions–martial symbols, landscape and still life details, mythic figures from Ancient Greece–alongside ornamental designs from the visual vocabularies of India and the Islamic world. Many of her picote compositions refer to nature, from Tree Women (female torsos with arboreal arms and legs, e.g., Mujer Arbol), to fluttering feathered creatures (Birds), to clusters of flowers (Secret Garden, Garden of Delight). She allows fashionable ensembles to stand in for women (Looking for the Most Immaculate Dress) and exploding blossoms to represent goddesses (Mother Durga).
Formally, Aponte’s recent black shields contrast lines and dots “drawn” by white thread with subtle crimson areas created by stitched red yarn. The circular formats of the shields recall defensive armaments (i.e., the shields carried by soldiers) as well as heraldic crests, badges, and other military insignia. Beyond that, the circular shape alludes to all cyclic movement, to notions of totality and wholeness, and to timelessness and eternity. One of the statements most often attributed to the Egypto-Greek writer Hermes Trismegistus is “God is a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”
Since the Renaissance, European painters have preferred rectangular formats, conceiving of the framed area as a window into an ideal world. But some masters–Raphael comes to mind immediately–also produced round compositions called tondos, from the Italian rotondo. (Think of Raphael’s Madonna della seggiola from 1513-14.) Circular compositions in relief sculpture were called “roundels.” (Think of Andrea della Robbia’s ceramic masterpiece, the Madonna and Child with Cherubin from 1485.) Aponte’s shields lie somewhere between tondos and roundels. Initial viewing suggests they are flat like paintings, but closer inspection reveals their dimensional variations, making them resemble shallow relief sculptures.
Many of Aponte’s compositions employ bilateral symmetry. Her Rising Sun surrounds a central disc with serpentine blue “rays.” Her Non-Identified Object involves two layers: a central white doorway that opens to reveal mysterious red and black worlds behind it. Gate to Paradise is a doorway to a realm of arcs of beads and sequins that make the entire surface twist and spiral. The Dress and its Demons is a vintage garment (perhaps the 1940s?) entwined in a ring of pale, devilish creatures.
Other parts of Aponte’s oeuvre reject symmetry in favor of paisley-like patterns. Originally from Persia, paisley became popular in the West in the 18th and 19th centuries after being adopted into East Indian textiles. Her Mashrabya is named after Islamic latticework windows. A large vertical piece covered with interlocking curves and curls, it has a pointed top like a Gothic arch. Other pieces have overall patterns animating their surfaces: the knot-like textures of Gone With The Wind, the lushly overgrown world of Secret Garden.
It is remarkable that with such limited means–paper pierced with holes, tiny stitches, beads, and sequins–Aponte can generate such widely differing tactile surfaces. The enchanting folk art appeal of picote allows this artist to grapple with cultural concepts anchored in the present moment. Raven shields of power. Discs of divinity. Windows and doors into other realms. Aponte’s art takes us to visual worlds of peace and pleasure.
German philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote, “Art teaches us to see into things. Folk art and kitsch allow us to see outward from within things.” Aponte’s picote works–canny combinations of fine and folk art practices–do both.