Imagine a field of wildflowers viewed from above. Now flatten the flowers into solid, bold colors of varying sizes, eliminate all background elements, rearrange them into circular patterns, print them on enormous sheets of paper, and hang them on a wall – you’ll have something similar to Polly Apfelbaum’s current show Big Love at Locks Gallery in Old City. It’s dazzlingly vibrant, decoratively detailed, and, well, flowery.
As excited as I was that Apfelbaum’s work was back in town, I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed that this artist who I know best for intricate, large-scale floor pieces has returned to plain-old hang-it-on-a-wall artwork. The Abington native’s last show in Philadelphia, in 2003 at the Institute for Contemporary Art, featured a number of “fallen paintings” – sprawling two-dimensional compositions of hand-dyed, individually cut-out scraps of fabric, arranged in circles and crystalline forms on the floor. They enveloped the space, interacting with the architecture and the viewer’s own movement to appear in a constant state of flux and pulsation. With inspiration as unexpected as Dalmatians and the Powerpuff Girls, the pieces conveyed a lively sense of humor and pop culture affinities.
The current show at Locks Gallery retains the pop culture and a touch of humor, but loses some of the dynamism by reverting to a standard vertical art-viewing format. Instead of the transitory effervescence of the floor pieces, these new wall pieces dominate and demand attention. Most of the pieces are over six-feet square; all are woodblock monoprints on handmade paper. Using variations on a flower shape (some look more like clouds, some like childish daisies, and some like long-tentacled anemones), Apfelbaum reprints the shapes in a range of sizes and colors, never touching, never overlapping. The plain white of the paper serves as the ground, holding together all of the carefully organized forms; the imprinted edges of the woodblock add subtle texture and dimensionality. Colors are bold, flat, with myriad manifestations of similar hues, so that no one color becomes dominant or overly familiar.
Apfelbaum’s typical organic geometry arranges the shapes into circular patterns, often containing a central element, details in the four corners, and a contrasting array of shapes filling in the gaps. They bring to mind the meditative qualities of mandalas, the folk art of Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs and quilts, and the careful planning of public gardens. The repetition of generic, almost iconic, shapes turns them into pixels or patches or wallpaper patterns, so shapes become structural and cannot be viewed out of the whole context. Although not overt, the playful spirit of the Powerpuff Girls lurks around the corners, infusing the flowery, feminine forms with a snarky energy.
In such bold surroundings, the most beautiful and striking moment ends up also being the most subtle. In “Love Park 16” (2007), the busyness of color and pattern suddenly ends in a wash of white background. Looking closely, however, you see the imprint of white flowers against the white paper, the difference of color so slight that from a distance it becomes imperceptible. The monochromatic continuation of the shapes, combined with the physical imprint of the woodblock, creates an area of pseudo-starkness and nearly invisible detail that runs contrary to every other piece in the room. It’s a powerful moment, worth engaging for a long time; worth walking around the gallery and indulging the vivacity just to return to this one tranquil moment.
Although not Apfelbaum’s most engaging show, Big Love fits comfortably within her oeuvre and continues her creative engagement with large-scale repetition, vibrant color, and distorted femininity. It’s nice to have her back in town.
By: Melinda Steffy, for The Bulletin, October 9, 2007