New York

Polly Apfelbaum

Amy Lipton Gallery

From the late Gothic to the Baroque, drapery was the vehicle of expression par excellence, abstracting the emotional and sensual passions of the bodies it enveloped as pure form. Think of Saint Theresa’s painfully sweet ecstasy made palpable by turbulent, untamed drapery. Today drapery rarely signifies more than a humble domestic framework, and so perhaps, it is fitting that Polly Apfelbaum arrays her lush, crushed-velvet cloths on the floor, working from the ground up in reestablishing the expressive potential of drapery to signify the body.

To its credit, Apfelbaum’s installation is quite simple. Pieces of slinky crushed velvet are stained with spots of color and configured in crumpled piles, or folded neatly on cardboard boxes, or are laid flat, radiating from a corner. Formally, these arrangements resist permanence, for their shapes can be changed at will. Hence, a scatter-type installation can become, after a quick few minutes, a contained stack. What is expansive can become compressed; what is minimal can become mannered. Less easy to determine in this play of interchangeable opposites is the Pop quality of the work with respect to its supposed feminized content.

With titles such as Sleeping Beauty, Peggy Lee and the Dalmatians, and The Dwarves with Snow White (all works 1992), Apfelbaum directs our attention away from obvious references to Sam Francis, Helen Frankenthaler, and Lynda Benglis, and toward a candy-colored Disney cartoon land. The exhibition’s title, however, “The Blot On My Bonnet,” comes from a 1902 book of verse in which one particular verse, “The Blot on Polly’s Bonnet,” describes a small bird “writhing in pain,” sacrificed for the ornament of a hat, and thus suggests a darker undercurrent of suffering in relation to the vanity or vulnerability of the body. In the midst of sensual fabrics that readily yield their form to touch but are giddy enough to suggest jokes about sexuality, we are left stranded. Do we delve for the subtext of 101 Dalmatians, “Sleeping Beauty,” or “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” as fables of sexual foreplay and seduction? Must we see stains on white velvet as emblems of the female body? (What could be more grossly monumentalizing, in contrast to this work’s veneration of impermanence, than to code a gesture as female or to embody femininity in a stain?!) Do we, instead, register Apfelbaum’s commentary as an exposé of Pop art’s endless variations on the theme of repressed and not-so-repressed sexuality? (What’s new?) It is promising that in The Dwarves with Snow White Apfelbaum has literally “bagged” the pastel pom-poms and cheerleader syndrome that appeared in previous work. Here crushed-velvet, languorously laid out or ruched up in almost liquid puddles, is an instant come-on by virtue of its tactile associations with skin.

Promiscuous with respect to the artistic traditions they embrace, sullied with blotches of ink, or hiding snatches of color in their folds, Apfelbaum’s cloths make their own seduction with the viewer. But Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and all those lovable dogs break the spell and turn this exhibition into merely so much good, clean fun.

Jan Avgikos