New York

Polly Apfelbaum

Loughelton Gallery

There is a reverberating stillness in the work of Polly Apfelbaum, but it is not a resolute calm; it is a stillness that bristles with contained tension. Her work evokes pleasure at the same time as it disturbs the viewer. Its spartan presence is misleading, for it is not primarily an investigation of pure form, or a search for essences; rather, Apfelbaum’s work is concerned with the invasive, conditional circumstances of postmodern thought.

This exhibition, entitled “The Somnambulist,” addressed the ambivalent condition of the sleepwalker: the dual state of sleep and wakeful activity, of unconsciousness and awareness. Apfelbaum’s objects suggest the wisdom of letting the somnambulist be free to wander, in spite of the possible perils. The risks are worth the revelatory potential released by the coincidence of the conscious and the automatic.

Apfelbaum’s objects share a formal clarity. All of them derive from simple geometric shapes or identifiable forms. Diagram of Bones for Madame Duchamp, 1988, consists of a series of 12 copper-gilded wishbones arranged by size. The wishbones are threaded together at regular intervals, the threading needle left hanging from one end. These found and altered objects are bestowed a regularity by their copper coatings, which diminishes the imperfections of each bone. Like a modern musical scale, the bones form a progression in which all the parts are equally weighted. Twelve tones or twelve bones—each system accommodates infinite interpretations.

In Fan Dancer, 1987, Apfelbaum places a vertical lineup of 12 steel and aluminum fan blades on the wall, with the largest blades at the top descending to the smallest. The role of the artist in this peculiar alignment is unclear. Apfelbaum seems caught between conducting some Duchampian inquiry about banal objects and cultural context, and behaving as a traditional artist—as the inspired author of the compositions.

Another piece, The Somnambulist, 1988, consists of four wooden cylinders placed in a row on a squat steel slab. Each cylinder has its own particular pattern of holes—voided cylinders—cut through from top to base. This piece, and Apfelbaum’s other wooden constructions, employ an indirect, industrial process. From the artist’s drawings, a pattern maker cuts the simple shapes. Apfelbaum accepts the unplanned adjustments that occur in the translation. By finding opportunity in chance, she transcends the role of designer and fulfills the role of artist.

Apfelbaum’s work is lucid about capriciousness. It lithely inhabits its own place, influenced by, and providing information about, the traditions of abstraction and found objects, the connections of high art and folk art, the intersections of planning and fortuity, and the somnambulists’s suspended state as a divine and divining position between nature and culture.

Patricia C. Phillips