New York

Ida Applebroog

Over the last few years, Ida Applebroog has been moving away from her signature non-narrative comic-strip works showing featureless figures to larger, more painterly panels and more complex compositions. The large paintings shown here reflect this shift: certain scenes are reminiscent of her early work, but often, as in Lithium Square, 1988, figures emerge from tight frames and enter the larger panels, as though the artist were eager to blur the boundaries of the two phases.

Applebroog’s small and large figures include men, women, kids, and animals, often engaged in actions so ordinary—sipping coffee, stretching, stooping to pick up a coin—as to seem unworthy of attention. Others are shown doing something highly dramatic: a female sniper fires from a window, an attack dog breaks loose from its chain. Most figures appear alone, and the pairs often look antagonistic; in both cases, one senses frustration and loneliness. The deadpan frontality of the comic-strip characters and the tortured poses of the larger, expressionist figures underscore this feeling of troubled solitude. Applebroog’s empty backgrounds also imply alienated states. Her landscapes, such as the rocky mountains of Vector Hills, 1989, and mottled water of Sphincter Pond, 1988, are not places fit for human or animal habitation; they tend to fold up like cardboard stage sets.

Applebroog’s compositions persist in flouting interpretation. While her freeze-frames beg for context, whatever narratives we construct for them run aground somewhere in the disjunctive grouping of elements. Elixir Tabernacle I and II, 1989, seem to be about women as victims and aggressors, but the male figures in the scenes appear to be hardly aware of their female antagonists. Other works are composed of seemingly unrelated elements. In Vector Hills, an image of three people in a canyon is juxtaposed with another of a man’s back plastered with medical sensors and yet another of an elderly couple harvesting apples. Above these is a band of smaller scenes depicting a boy holding a letter, a dog breaking its chain, a man watering a plant, and a woman carrying a package. The titles, which draw on medical terms that have multiple meanings and associations, are similarly ambiguous. Lithium, for instance, is used to treat manic depressives, but it is also an ingredient in nuclear reactions.

Applebroog calls these works’ “nostrums”—medicines of secret composition whose effectiveness is without proof, as well as ”questionable remedies or schemes; panaceas." The artist suggests that our common beliefs in religion, patriotism, medicine, and human compassion are equally unfounded. By inverting and reversing victims and aggressors, saviors and destroyers, Applebroog asks us to question all authority, all voices attempting to speak in absolutes—even the voice of the artist. Indeed, her random groupings question the viewer’s desire to establish a fixed view of things, and challenge the very notion of coherence.

Lois E. Nesbitt