New York

Ida Applebroog

Ida Applebroog’s paintings and books of cartoonlike couples and lonely figures seeking refuge in desolate hotel rooms are about as sentimental as Saturday Night Live’s version of TV news. If at least one of the characters in each work isn’t represented as a member of the dominated or demeaned, the one-line titles suggest a narrative sequence during which someone will become a member, whether forcefully or subtly. Applebroog’s satirical targets are men and women involved in stereotypically unequal sexual relationships, or individuals stricken with paranoia and self-doubt. They all inhabit not only the same godforsaken consciousness, but the same barren environment as well. Cumulatively, their situations suggest that Applebroog is more interested in social observation than in domestic power plays.

Each scene is framed by curtains (and sometimes also by half-closed shades), which place the viewer in the same voyeuristic role as would glimpsing domestic settings through street-level windows. Applebroog embellishes the theatrical quality of her staging by spot-lighting each of her large cutout vellum and rhoplex paintings to create shadows of its action. She then repeats the identical image in three flat, unlit versions. These repetitions serve as affirmative echoes of the sentiments of the captions, which all indicate stagnant or stifling behavior patterns. Look at me shows a woman sprawled out on a bed and trying to pull an uninterested man down with her, Sure I'm sure shows a woman in bed as a man undresses. Another man, sitting alone in a room as barren as others, looks at what we cannot see; the caption reads, Take off your panties. To such an obvious sexual domination is added a more humorous, subtle form of put-down. In a small wall series, of a bald man and a woman, the phrase “Your hair will grow again” appears with “It isn’t true.” And in a book called You’ll see, in which two women exchange seemingly harmless words, there appears an unexplained warning: “Something unequal is about to happen.”

What is happening in all of these rooms that is so unequal? The sexual domination of the women is grim, but not as oppressive or depressing as the cell-like traps in which all of the characters reside. These environments are as devoid of descriptive detail as the characters are of any signs of individuality. This is a city of the faceless, nameless and homeless; of inhabitants as temporary as their surroundings.

The simple vocabulary of Applebroog’s funny but troubling images is more socially keen than overtly political. Though far more pointed than Roger Brown’s, and more objectified than Robert Longo’s, the commentary she makes on city life through these images remains elusive, if not obscure. But Applebroog is smart to leave us at the point that she does. She gives us potent subjects in a fresh and clever form, but dares us to make whatever connections we will between domestic and social unrest. That language, she insinuates, is far too complex to explain simply.

Joan Cassademont