TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT March 1990

MEDUSA REDUX: IDA APPLEBROOG AND THE SPACES OF POST-MODERNITY

THE FAVORED IMAGE of the artist in the 19th century was the flaneur. Ambling through the spaces of the “spectacular city . . . open to a class and gender-specific gaze,”1 this voyeur and participant in public entertainments—bars, brothels, racetracks—had access to visual experiences and panoramas off-limits to an unchaperoned respectable woman. There could be no “flâneuse.”2 Informal interior scenes of domestic life were of course not exclusively spaces for women artists. But codes of propriety organized the limits of most women artists’ mobility within the spaces of modernity, both in daily life and in paint. To venture forth into a wider arena, Rosa Bonheur, for example, had to secure a permission de travestissement.3

To flâner—through the city, the picture plane, and art history—remains a necessity, even if the spaces of post-Modernity may differ from those of modernity, even if revisionist art history, which takes social context and gender into account, is changing the discipline. In this light it is curious that discussion of Ida Applebroog’s ambitious paintings so frequently fails to note her work’s historical contexts. Whereas texts on Robert Longo, David Salle, Cindy Sherman, or Annette Lemieux routinely place these artists in a relationship to art history, and to one another—a 1985 catalogue essay on Longo expends 13 paragraphs on post-1945 art before Longo is even named, and then he is immediately inserted into a group4—texts on Applebroog are usually eloquent descriptions of the emotional states depicted in her paintings and experienced by the viewer. Her work is rarely discussed in relation to that of other artists she was surely aware of in her developmental years, though one might compare and contrast Applebroog’s penchant, in recent paintings, for grotesque facial masks with the mordant and hallucinatory distortions of figuration by artists from the Hairy Who (Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Ed Paschke, Karl Wirsum. et al.), dominant in Chicago when Applebroog attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the mid ’60s. Nor do critics note the affinities with West Coast performance or feminist artists (particularly active in the early ’70s, when Applebroog lived in Southern California). Yet the poker-faced humor of William Wegman’s early videos finds a kindred spirit in the maddeningly understated punchlines of the small books—significantly titled “performances”—that Applebroog mailed to unsuspecting correspondents in the ’70s, and Eleanor Antin’s elaborate masquerades of feminine performative genius are offered another kind of stage in Applebroog’s presentations of women.

Instead, Applebroog’s subject matter is generally described in detail and her emotional message editorialized: “Ida Applebroog’s work embraces a full range of man’s follies, often with compassion and wit and sometime ’s with reproach and anger . . . . She has a facility for animating some of the major issues of our time: alienation, disenfranchisement, violence, racism, agism and feminism.”5 It is commonplace and truthful to say “that she makes us see the undercurrent of cruelty and violence that lies beneath characters and situations, which on the surface, may appear normal and benign.”6 The indecipherability of a complete narrative within the paintings is noted, but post-Structuralist analysis does not follow, even though such discourse is the lingua franca of post-Modernist art writing.

THE CENTRAL ACTION in Ida Applebroog’s recent paintings takes place in a hostile, ruined, falsely or perilously idyllic outdoor space: a woman and child embrace in a pumpkin field in Tomorrowland, 1986; a man in a business suit leans into a field of red flowers in Crimson Gardens, 1986; a woman strapped into a strange pair of stiltlike shoes appears in the apple orchard of Emetic Fields, 1989. Yet to describe these spaces as primary in any thematic or dramatic sense would be misleading. Each painting is a large, complex orchestration of big and small canvases, architecturally disposed with a musical sense of counterpoint. In each work, human figures appear in a variety of scales: often a giant looms alongside the central scape occupied by a “life-size” inhabitant, and narrow bands of single, enigmatic images that frame the larger canvases telegraph intimations of domesticity.

Formal decisions are not formulaic, despite these recurrent visual elements. Small and large, interior and exterior, oppressed and oppressor are not disposed in the same configuration twice. In a disconcerting manner, edges do not meet, walls show through segments, narrative strips do not coincide with the larger canvases or images they abut. The peculiar flow of narratives through these different spaces and scales, and the locking and unlocking of time and space in these disjointed scripts and scales, serve to disembody the very evident physicality of these architectural paint-things.

In Applebroog’s work, as in television, “the global village” tunes into an unhierarchic toxic waste dump of places, images, and events. Earthquakes and ball games, assassinations, space walks, the “Love Canal” and The Love Boat, Donahue in a dress, the inside of a human ovary, serial murder, plastic surgery—you are there, you are they, they are here. Applebroog’s basic compositional techniques for the dispositions of these spaces of post-Modernity are related to the visual strategies of such artists as David Salle and Eric Fischl. However, for all their multiple canvases, images, and figures, Salle’s and Fischl’s works retain the conventional position of gazing into a chamber (whose occupant is most likely to be a woman). In Applebroog’s work, on the other hand, the traditional spaces of femininity—living room, bedroom, kitchen—become the viewfinder of a vast camera obscura. She is a global flaneuse whose paintings play host to an outer world, inhabited by men, women, children, and animals who spill into “woman’s world” at great speed and in tumultuous moral equivalence.

It is the tumult of these spaces that animates the architectural elements of paintings, transmuting archaic post-and-lintel construction into filmic space and montage. Yet Applebroog’s call to the visual-narrative techniques of both old high art and recent low art builds on film’s capacity to intercut unrelated images and actions. The narrow bands that horizontally or vertically frame most of the larger paintings have often been referred to as “predellalike,” linking these works to medieval and early Renaissance altarpieces. In these, the predellas were the narrative scenes painted on small panels, usually at the bottom or side of the central, larger image. While the main scenes might contain a static and symbolic portrayal of the principal iconography and be painted in a refined, “advanced,” highly finished style, in the High Church Latin of visual language, the predellas were painted in the vernacular. They often appear more “primitive,” as they tell a story in vivid movement and detail: see the child, see the wolf with the child’s arm in its mouth, see Saint Clare in the sky, see the wolf dead, for example, all in Giovanni di Paolo’s Saint Clare of Assisi Saving a Child from a Wolf, ca. 1450s. But in Applebroog’s work, the predella narrative is reduced to simple repeating images that function as cell animation and as frames from a silent movie with titles. Tomorrowland’s pumpkin field, for example, features a strip of images at its top: a man presses his face to a woman’s skirt/ crotch, a man presses his face to a woman’s skirt/crotch, a man presses his face to a woman’s skirt/ crotch—the caption is “It smells nice.” Another repeat image on the same narrow band, of two little girls, bears the subtitle “Are you bleeding yet?” Intercut between these animation strips is a slightly bigger single image of a chorus line, and of a guy on a sofa saying “Want Chinese tonight?” Predella or cartoon? Applebroog reaches back to a very old technique and a very low-brow, “infantile” form of story-telling, not to instruct us on the life of a saint, however, but to offer us only ciphers of modern life. These images are previews for a film run through a super-8 projector while the main screen may be in Cinemascope, and fragments float around like “smart window” television.

As Griselda Pollock points out in her 1988 Vision and Difference, such Brechtian strategies of montage are particularly useful to an artist engaged in cultural critique. Briefly stated, in order for art to get beyond or behind conventions of representation, in order to expose the ideology these conventions serve, artworks should employ “dis-identificatory practices” that disrupt “ 'the dance of ideology,’ ”7 and “distanciation” that would “liberate the viewer from the state of being captured by illusions of art which encourages passive identification with fictional worlds.”8 This "critique of realism,’’ as Pollock notes, depends on the

use of montage, disruption of narrative, refusal of identifications with heroes and heroines, the intermingling of modes from high and popular culture, the use of different registers such as the comic, tragic as well as a confection of songs, images, sounds, film and so forth . Complex seeing and complex multilayered texts [are] the project.9

Clearly Applebroog deploys these prescribed strategies as she draws from “high and popular culture” and combines “comic” and “tragic” registers: the presumed hero of her Tomorrowland has a potentially noble body but a clown face. A large bodybuilder, this time a woman flexing her biceps in Applebroog’s 1987 Rainbow Caverns, is juxtaposed with a small image of a girl, a single strand of spaghetti suspended between her fork and mouth, bonding a Michelangelesque tradition of heroic sculptural rendering to cartoonlike figuration and action.

“Dis-identificatory practices,’’ of course, have constituted significant, even dominant strategies in the art of the past decade, particularly in works that offer important critiques of the position of women in representation. Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document, 1976–80, in which every form of documentation except figural representation is used to expose the writing-out of the mother as the child enters into language, is a frequently cited example of the usefulness of these techniques to dismantle the repressive aspects of representation. But these strategies have become standardized in recent art practice; image appropriation and juxtaposition have by now become routine visual devices whose very ubiquity seems to have itself become a repressive discourse. At its best, appropriation can be construed as one more space of post-Modernity, a fifth dimension of imagery and art-historical recycling, a flaneur’s knowing stroll through an open library of representations whose reconfiguration will expose and critique ideology. Nevertheless, the actual practice of appropriation and juxtaposition can result in work that remains so close to its visual sources and the ideology they represent that it cannot be distinguished from them, or in work that is simply mundane or flat-footed in its literal 1 + 1 approach. Julie Wachtel’s images from cartoons and mass media have exactly the same degree of humor as the material she appropriates. Annette Lemieux’s combinations of words, images, and actual objects may lack the mental pop of unexpected association, or the pop has the quick effect of ”poppers" without long-term resonance.

If Applebroog shares certain references with her contemporaries—TV, pornography, pre- and post-1945 art—she distinguishes herself by her transformations of much of what she appropriates, and uses appropriation as a catalyst for her own meanings. Willem de Kooning’s Woman I, 1950–52, becomes an afterimage in Applebroog’s Two Women III, 1985, a blurred echo hovering over the shoulder of a fat, girdled woman screaming past de Kooning’s vagina dentata in counterpoint to a repeated predella image of male beauty queens whose rather foolish lumpiness suggests the Other’s Other. Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Children, 1820–23, becomes, in Applebroog’s Camp Compazine, 1988, an elderly retiree eating a screaming homunculus during his afternoon snooze. From the high drama of mythology, evil is reinstated within the banality of daily life in a senior-citizen community. If one imagines a Mike Bidlo-esque use of the Goya image, would it have the disquieting effect of making you suspect that your grandfather in Miami might eat you up like bridge mix?

As in the work of Leon Golub, the materiality of paint intensifies the disruptive potential of appropriation. Both engage us in an uneasy relationship with figures we might prefer not even to look at. Painterly surfaces serve as a moral agent for both artists: Applebroog’s palette-knifed, thick, but translucent paint resonates with Golub’s painfully scraped surfaces. Both offer us canvases wounded as the body of Grünewald’s Christ. And just as we don’t want to identify with Golub’s torturers—or their victims—it is hard to identify with Applebroog’s “heroes and heroines.” Many of her figures wear grotesque masks—or are they masks? Those who appear “normal” are even harder to identify with. Think of the nice grandmotherly lady in an armchair with a rifle across her lap in Chronic Hollow, 1989. Every figure’s moral position is up for grabs—an interesting device in work whose overall sense of moral outrage is unquestionable. This moral outrage is present in Golub’s work as well, but his appropriated images, though powerfully mediated by paint manipulation, remain simple, unitary. The moral ambiguity exists in a binary framework: bad people doing bad things, and bad viewers for loving the paintings, thereby condoning the actions of their protagonists.

Belladonna, a 1989 video by Applebroog and her daughter Beth B, in both its content and its very title offers a rich congruence of Applebroog’s subversive practices. Its sound track permeated the Ronald Feldman gallery during Applebroog’s recent New York exhibition: “I’m not a bad person, I’m not a bad person,” one could hear a little boy’s angelic voice repeating now and then, from the black-curtained room where the video was periodically screened, as one moved from painting to painting, many of which featured children moving in and out of centrality and in and out of moral high ground. The pink-faced baby peeking out of an old man’s brown coat in Idiopathic Center, 1988, for example, may retain a certain innocence relative to the other children and adolescents depicted in the painting—some nearly vanishing behind bars, others weeping—but this baby face is also the living heart of a man turned to stone, or it might be a boil, an eruption from the old man’s earlier promise. This might even be Oedipus, but when he was an unknowing infant in the arms of a loving foster parent. In Lithium Square, 1988, another sleeping baby, cradled in the lap of a figure whose identity and gender are hidden by a veil, becomes sinister: fat and stone-colored, he emits smug indifference to the suffering of his guardian pieta, who is as successfully erased from representation as the mother in Kelly’s Post-Partum Document. In Crimson Gardens, vignettes of children in scary masks and blindfolds confront a chorus line of women in a concentration camp. One of the children is a ringer: he or she also has a shaved head and striped prison clothes. Is this child a Holocaust victim, an adult woman infantilized by her bared skull, or a child’s truly creepy Halloween disguise? Is this Sluggo or little Elie Wiesel?

At the end of Belladonna, the credits reveal that all the script we have heard delivered in brief, intercut monologues by a cast of several men and women and one little boy are statements taken from testimonies of Joseph Mengele’s victims, Joel Steinberg’s trial, and Freud’s 1919 essay “A Child Is Being Beaten.” The line spoken by the angelic child, “I’m not a bad person,” could well have been the self-pitying justification of Joel Steinberg, a child-killer. The moral purity of the child speaker is damaged by this possible ventriloquism. All preconceptions and sentimentality we may attach to the idea of childhood are dissolved.

On the other hand, by juxtaposing quotes from stories of actual physical abuse with erotic fantasies of abuse theorized by Freud, Applebroog and Beth B effectively resist Freud’s denial of the father’s guilt. Despite Applebroog’s adherence to narrative techniques (storyboard, figuration, captions), Belladonna indicates her divergence from the traditional Oedipal narrative: something bad really has been done by the father. Like Laura Mulvey, who, in her essay “The Oedipus Myth: Beyond the Riddles of the Sphinx,” questions what “has been systematically ignored in both classical tragedy and later tradition,”10 Applebroog explores the obvious mystery, namely, why were Oedipus and his family cursed? Mulvey reveals the prehistory of the myth: the rape, by Oedipus’ father, Laius, of his host’s young son, Chrysippos.

According to this pre-history of the myth, Laius’s aggressive and violent homosexual act is the latent cause of the curse and of Oedipus’s later suffering. Chrysippos’s experience with Laius can act as a displacement on to another young boy from a primal anxiety in son-to-father relations; the repression of this aspect of the myth then becomes a repression of the father’s fault in the Oedipal scenario. Marie Balmary explains Freud’s oversight in terms of his need to repress the Laius-like qualities of his own father Jacob Freud. She argues that the logical consequence of this (personal) repression was the (theoretical) repression of the father’s fault and Freud’s decision to 'exonerate’ the father of seduction and 'incriminate’ the child’s fantasy of seduction. It is known that Freud adopted the fantasy theory of seduction during the period of mourning over his own father’s death.11

A child speaks the words of a child killer, a man reads the fantasies of child abuse recorded by Freud: these position transfers mark Applebroog’s rebellion against the repressive aspects of the Freudian Oedipal narrative that dominates Western systems of esthetic interpretation. This reading of Belladonna is consistent with and enriches our understanding of the child-eating old man in Camp Compazine and the stone Snuggli-carrier of Idiopathic Center.

Disidentificatory practice and refunctioning of mythic narrative is at its greatest play in Applebroog’s depiction of women. It is hard to project any kind of narcissism onto her figures. The title Belladonna is ironically apt because there are no traditionally, overtly beautiful women in her work. In Beulahland (for Marilyn Monroe), 1987, the film goddess appears, amidst a falling field of potatoes and men in cars, as she would be now: aging, fat, modest, prurient, and coy: monstrous in her inability to let go of girliehood, which, retrospectively, becomes monstrous as well.

Within dominant representation, old and ugly women are conventionally relegated to the margins of “culturally overdetermined scopophilia.”12 They are the old crones doing housework through a doorway in the background of a painting by Vermeer, or attending the beautiful young lady in too many paintings of nudes to be specific. As such they are as the fly on the perfect fruit of a vanitas, allegorical emblems for the inevitability of decay and death embedded in Woman by patriarchy. When the aged and the ugly do appear as central subjects, it is in genre painting, a second-class citizen within art history. By placing ugly and plain old women (and men), with whom no one wishes to identify, at the center of her project, Applebroog in effect genetically alters genre painting, in a sense “elevates” it to the level of history painting. Her recent works exist in a continuum with such large-scale history painting as Géricault’s The Raft of the “Medusa”, 1818–19, Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus, 1827, and Courbet’s The Artist’s Studio, 1855.13 Just as contemporary media culture trivializes history, so Applebroog brings the trivial details of a collapsing order to the scale and tragic dimension of history painting. But if the “Grand Tradition” of painting is understood as fundamentally masculinist,14 then Applebroog’s place within it is an anomaly, and represents a hostile takeover. Perhaps part of what makes this possible is the fact that the artist herself is beyond the “age” of representation. As Kelly notes: "'Being a woman is but a brief moment in one’s life’!”15 In dominant representation, a female human is only a woman between menses and menopause, and thus only woman’s youth is pictured. When the woman artist has aged out of the picture, she can return to alter it without compunction.

Belladonna also allows us to travel through ideas about female representation toward the possibility of a repositioned gaze. At a time when writing about femininity is focused on a specular economy in which woman is an object of vision, in which male subjectivity depends on Woman’s disappearance into representation, Belladonna is a significant title on another level. Belladonna (also known as deadly nightshade), a poisonous hallucinogen found in certain plants, induces widely dilated pupils and can cause psychosis at greater dosages. It was used by women in the 19th century to make their eyes appear fashionably large and limpid. Applebroog uses belladonna, the poisonous prison of female beauty, to dilate her pupils and sharpen her vision of patriarchy, transforming Woman from a site of representation and a sight into a seer.

It is said that children and animals have often become the victims of belladonna, accidentally poisoned by eating its fruit. 16 And patriarchy is the worm in the apples that have fallen off a tree at the center of Emetic Fields: a woman walks on stilts to avoid touching these tainted fruit while on the tree, apples are inhabited by images of elderly men, blindfolded men, and a guy with “Mother” embroidered on the back of his jacket. This Eve bows her head—or is it that she’s watching her step?

Applebroog’s belladonnas are “Medusa and the Sphinx,” who, “like the other ancient monsters, have survived inscribed in hero narratives, in someone else’s story, not their own.”17 In contrast to the Oedipal narrative, which renders women only as enigmatic monsters threatening “to man’s vision,”18 Applebroog hallucinogenically depicts the triumph and the decay of Oedipus, the de-inscriber of women, in her representation of the return of the repressed female, the prescient child, and the ancient monster. A bald Medusa now sits for her portrait in an evening gown and an arm cast, while little Oedy, nearby, eats a watermelon in Noble Fields, 1987. Medusa’s gaze turned men to stone, to that which is not action, that which is representation, to art. Pygmalion’s transformations are a miracle, Medusa’s a crime. Applebroog’s figures, significantly, are often rendered in a stone color. Applebroog becomes both Medusa and Pygmalion; it is her belladonna-widened gaze that turns action into representation.

In Chronic Hollow, Medusa takes the form of a trick-or-treating child: all the action in the painting—tumbling figures, a lady’s head exploding into paint—seem a function of her unconscious will. But Applebroog’s monsters may be victims too: this bald Medusa has turned herself to stone. The mask of the little girl looks as if the old-wives’-tale warning came true: make a face and you will be stuck with it forever. She has been permanently gagged with a spoon. The Sphinx, on the other hand, finds her contemporary embodiment in Queen Elizabeth, huge and poker-faced in her coat and pillbox hat. A quintessential male-oriented figure, the queen is allied with a blind surgeon in Emetic Fields as they frame the apple orchard. In Anhedonia, 1989, patients emerge from her head, and the gravity of her identical expression, three times repeated, points to her own victimization and to her silence.

The monstrous aspect of these major figures in Applebroog’s work recalls the theory of female creativity proposed by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar in their 1979 Madwoman in the Attic19: women artists, Gilbert and Gubar argue, have internalized patriarchy’s myths about the destructive, monstrous nature of female creativity and power, and are fearful about using a language that incorporates these defamatory images. This double anxiety erupts in their art through monstrous, mad, violent alter egos; Rochester’s mad wife in the attic of Thornfield in Jane Eyre is the eponymous example. The conflict implicit in the negotiation of these monstrous alter egos is manifest in works by a range of women artists. Diane Arbus’ photographs, while they often showed a voyeuristic identification with their “freaky” subjects, also suggest a tacit acceptance of mainstream categorizations of what constitutes normalcy and monstrosity. Cindy Sherman’s baroque self-representation as a dead pig is another example of this pattern, as are her most recent male and female figures from art history endowed with a fairy-tale profusion of false noses and disfiguring moles. Applebroog, like Sherman in her new work, moves from a limited, binarist acceptance of the monster/woman artist identification by placing monstrousness on so many heads.

Finally, if these paintings use narrative techniques borrowed from altarpieces, one may wonder to whom these particular altarpieces are dedicated. Certainly not to female figures who have been subsumed to patriarchal religion (the Virgin Mary). They do not celebrate belladonna, but Donna. They reflect the vision of Galatea, perhaps, but more likely that of Mary Shelley’s “monster,” or of Cassandra.

QUEEN ELIZABETH, LIKE ALL the large-scale figures in Applebroog’s paintings, is painted with a gelatinous, translucent brown or gray matter, oil paint extended with gel and troweled on. At times it looks like gleaming sludge. No wonder the queen sports such a stiff upper lip. Visceral, gleaming paint, as much as the creation rather than the re-presentation of female representation, is the key to Applebroog’s apparent exclusion from the canon-forming texts of the current feminist avant-garde, for paint is not the space of choice for post-Modern women artists. Applebroog’s trust in the materiality of paint to convey a political message, to effect a feminist intervention, brings her up against the profound distrust of figuration and narrative arrived at through the manipulation of slithery pigmented matter on a ground, a distrust held by a school of criticism that in another context I have dubbed “esthetic terrorism.”20 Modernism and post-Modernism have added one last element to the atavistic association of woman/blood/guts/mud/slime/putrefaction/death—that element is paint, a viscous flowing matter capable of disturbing multiformity. 21 The “distanciation” most devoutly wished for by this school of criticism is from the body, and Applebroog’s paint is particularly grounded in the body. The group of works that she exhibited in New York in 1987 was painted in colors and textures of bodily fluids and excretions: blood red, shit brown, urine yellow. In her most recent New York exhibition, “Nostrums,” all the titles referred to psychiatric care or physical/psychosomatic management, and Applebroog’s color range expanded to include sappy pinks, mauves, and peach, colors meant to subdue crazy people, which in this case meant, at least temporarily, the viewers.

Applebroog’s use of paint is at once spartan and baroque, noncommittal and passionate. In one sense her application of paint is instrumental: nothing is ever more than it needs to be. The predella sections are quite flat, minimal in color and surface. The paint is used functionally, applied as necessary to cover a particular area or create a form (note how the palette knife fashions an orange-draped figure in Lithium Square, for example, or how the transparency of the gel medium conveniently renders the black nylons in Elixir Tabernacle, 1989). There are no special effects here, but there is effective authority, indeed old-fashioned mastery: the old man eating a child is as sculpturally rendered as the Belvedere Torso that inspired Michelangelo, but constructed with economy rather than showy virtuosity. Applebroog’s gift to painters and to other viewers is precisely in what she achieves beyond the merely instrumental: “unnecessary” moments of visual pleasure within grim pictures. As an example, Camp Compazine is a condemnatory exposé of America—with its slumbering child-eater to one side, somber businessmen on the other, and born-again Christians on top—a country and a painting overrun by turkeys whose feathers are built up in waxy, bas-relief slabs of paint. And yet the transition from translucent red to translucent pink in the empty center effects a fluid, almost gentle passage from dark to darker panel, in color, tone, and subject. Such incidences of visual pleasure buy the paintings time to be read over a long period. The layering of paint, and of paintings within paintings, moves the viewer through time in a manner more akin to film than many artworks that far more explicitly and self-consciously remind us that they have appropriated the syntax and formal elements of cinematic language. (In French, by the way, a still negative is a cliché.)

Applebroog’s paintings are never easy to describe in a single explanatory sentence. Of the painting Chronic Hollow, is it sufficient to say it is a painting of a girl in a dog mask? A girl interrupting a purple landscape with a bench and people tumbling? And what of the predella scenes? But as we stand in front of it, a complex interplay of a thinly applied, pale pinkish brown (dare we call it puce?), slabs of gray gel, nervously applied white, and a “natural” canvas color make up the central scene in which the dog-masked “heroine” interrupts the flow of figures tumbling through a space of uncertain scale. The tumblers’ mobile white-brushmarked outlines strike a delicate balance between virtuosity and functionality, replicating and augmenting their movements through the canvas segments, causing them to move past our gaze like a film run sprocket hole by sprocket hole. At the top of the painting, the starker contrasts of dark crimson, blood red, and white, thinly layered, construct a montage of Applebroog’s gun-toting grandma in an armchair, and a couple supporting a woman whose head has vaporized into a delicate white haze.

Applebroog is not alone in the infusion of a trust in paint and in other traditional graphic materials, and of humor, poetry, and anger, even wrath, into standard post-Modern visual strategies. Nor is she alone in turning her back on the circularity of recent obsessions about originality (which often seem to be acted out within a framework of careerism) in favor of a revaluing of personal imagination. Jonathan Borofsky’s running men and giant flag-waving aggressors, Sue Coe’s Piranesian scenes of urban and ecological violence spun out in graphite, Faith Ringgold’s quilted, segmented histories, are cultivated in the same apple orchard. Yet Applebroog’s functional, emotionally expressive, and fearless use of paint to reposition ancient female “monsters” at the center of political narrative suggests another space of post-Modernity, beyond what is becoming the limited, hackneyed space of post-Structuralist theory. It is a space in which narrative has power, but it is a narrative of difference, a different narrative than that of the death of painting or of the ideology prison of late-capitalist commodity culture.

The difficulty in properly contextualizing Applebroog may be the result of her persistent slippage between theoretical positions and visual strategies: she uses Brechtian practices called for by post-Modern feminist writers, but she does so in paint. She calls on ancient and popular narrative techniques, but her paintings do not tell familiar stories. Twentieth-century viewers and readers are accustomed to the Oedipal narrative as traditionally explicated. Ida Applebroog resists these readings, refocuses the “destructive” female gaze. No wonder conventional readings can only operate at the level of emotional reaction and political commonplaces. We do not recognize the narrative of the Sphinx, or The Raft of the “Medusa” as painted by Watson’s shark.

Mira Schor is a painter who lives in New York. She is coeditor of M/E/A/N/I/N/G, a journal of contemporary art.

I. Griselda Pollock, “Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity,” Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism and Histories of Art, London and New York: Routledge, 1988, p. 84.

2. Ibid., p. 71.

3. See Karen Petersen and J. J. Wilson, Women Artists: Recognition and Reappraisal from the Early Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century, New York: Harper & Row, Colophon Books, 1976, p. 77.

4. Robert Hobbs, Robert Longo: Dis-Illusions, exhibition catalogue, Iowa City: The University of Iowa Museum of Art, 1985.

5. Andrea Miller-Keller, Matrix 96, exhibition catalogue, Hartford: Wadsworth Atheneum, 1987, n.p.

6. Judith Tannenbaum, Ida Applebroog, exhibition catalogue, Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, 1986, n.p.

7. Pollock, “Screening the Seventies: Sexuality and Representation in Feminist Practice: A Brechtian Perspective,” Vision and Difference, p. 158.

8. Ibid ., p. 163.

9. Ibid., p. 164–65.

10. See Laura Mulvey , “The Oedipus Myth: Beyond the Riddles of the Sphinx,” Visual and Other Pleasures, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989, p. 197.

11. Ibid.

12. Mary Kelly, quoted in Pollock, p. 198.

13. It’s worth noting that up until the construction of Paris’ Musée d’Orsay, these three paintings, with others, were assembled in one room of the Louvre, to represent the pinnacle of the grand tradition of French painting.

14. Pollock, p. 156.

15. Kelly, quoted in Pollock, p. 188.

16. The New Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Chicago: William Beaton and Helen Hemingway Beaton, Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Inc., 1988, 14:610.

17. Teresa de Lauretis, “Desire in Narrative,” Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984, p. 109.

18. Ibid., p. 110.

19. See Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979. Although in the internecine debates within critical feminism, between so-called “essentialism” and deconstruction, this book is generally seen to fall into the discredited essentialist camp, the issue of female creativity as monstrously rebellious within patriarchy is tenacious, and often useful in considering the works of women artists who are generally only discussed as deconstructionists.

20. See Mira Schor, “Figure/Ground,” M/E/A/N/I/N/G #6, November 1989, pp. 18–27.

21. Marcel Duchamp’s stated wish for a “completely dry drawing, a dry conception of art” is more poetically cast in his earlier note:

arrhe is to art as
sh itte is to shit
arrhe/art = shitte/shit
grammatically:
the arrhe of painting is feminine in gender.

See The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, ed. Michael Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson, New York: Da Capo Press. p. 24. A republication of Salt Seller: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, Oxford: at the University Press, 1973. And Tristan Tzara presents a similar con nation of animal female sexuality and oil painting: “And farther down, sex organs of women, with teeth, all-swallowing—the poetry of eternity, love, pure love of course—rare steaks and oil painting.” See Dada Pointers and Poets: An Anthology, second edition, ed. Robert Motherwell, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1989, p. 84.

“Ida Applebroog: Happy Families,” a retrospective exhibition of the artist’s work, is on view at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, Texas, through 20 May 1990.