New York

Ida Applebroog

Ida Applebroog's recent paintings mark a steady progression away from the storyboard-style works of the '70s and early '80s for which she is known. Gone are the curtained windows transforming viewers into voyeurs; instead, Applebroog's latest dramas surround the observer with a dense, cloying insistence. Moreover, Rhoplex has been replaced by oil paint, and cool monochromes by combinations of warm hues that often deviate jarringly from the actual colors of their referents. But the strongest change in these works lies in the new register into which Applebroog shifts her own reading of the human comedy.

Each of the exhibited paintings (all from 1986 and '87) is multipartite, consisting of three or more square or rectangular panels joined together to form irregular configurations. The works are painted in evocative, in-between colors, such as amber, terracotta, a mauve that verges on opalescent pink, and the faded sepia peculiar to discolored vintage photographs. The backgrounds of K-Mart Village I and II, both 1987, are the shade of green that we associate with the rooms and corridors of schools, hospitals, and other institutions. Applebroog works these colors with a palette knife, achieving a rough, ragged quality to suggest a disconcerting range of situations. Her characters—all ravaged by physical, social, or psychological violence or simply suffering from the ravages of time—are the old, the destitute, the maimed or grotesquely mutilated, the cretinous, or, conversely, the overly typical. The artist depicts these individuals in an atmosphere of enforced desperation—desperation that has many sources and is seemingly unavoidable. When children are depicted (often wearing the feeble or brutal masks of their elders) it is as harbingers of inevitable dissolution.

Applebroog's collages of images allow her to suggest fragmentary narratives, implying violence that is unexplained and inherently unmotivated or gratuitous. There is no coherence to her world because the world itself is incoherent, and because the codes that would give it solidity are ruptured by the implosive turbulence of human cruelty. But the fragmentation also suggests an oneiric landscape in which images collide or touch unaccountably. Applebroog has a gift for strong, galvanizing, enigmatic images, as in Noble Fields, 1987, the central panel of which shows a solitary child sitting in a watermelon field and eating a slice of the succulent fruit. The theme of the lush landscape—and particularly its corollary of woman as landscape or as fertile field—is embodied by the figure of a lavishly dressed woman in the panel at the left. However, the sense of luxury is contradicted by the grotesque mask on her face and the cast on her arm. Here no one escapes the inexorable current of time, which can suddenly transmute beauty into horror, or comfort into pain, or can produce its deadening effect through the repetition of ordinary daily routine—notions that Applebroog conveys in the filmstriplike sequence of repeated images in the pair of narrow horizontal panels at the top. In a fifth panel, other images splayed over this memory-screen include a can-can line, a man carrying another man with bandaged feet, and a woman pensively eating spaghetti.

Throughout these works, time is always passing or running out. Applebroog's ability is to render time in its most ungraspable configurations, which can be sensed only through the multiplicity of images it contains. Those images metamorphose from canvas to canvas: pictures of potato fields in one become landslides of rocks in another or cascades of rotting flowers in a third. In Goya Road II and III , both 1987, small numbered signs like the row markers in cemeteries jut out from the long, narrow mounds of rocks (memories of Auschwitz?), with the heads of the dead interspersed among the craggy forms. The last panel of Goya Road II also shows the head of a swimming dog (a quotation from Goya) just visible above the murky carnage. Applebroog presents all of these agonies so skillfully that it's impossible not to flinch.

Kate Linker