San Francisco

Polly Apfelbaum

CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts

Polly Apfelbaum’s arrangements of pieces of stained crushed velvet defy easy categorization or description. For her show at the school’s McBean Gallery, she used this modest material to create a piece of cinematic proportions called The Night, 1996–97—a title, appropriately enough, borrowed from an early Antonioni film. Thousands of stains measuring an inch or two in either dimension had been neatly cut out of cream-colored fabric, singly or in small chained clusters, and arranged on the floor of the gallery—a peculiar, irregularly shaped room dominated at one end by a large concrete staircase. Around the edge of the stains a narrow border of the fabric’s original color remained, creating a terrific charge, as the groups of gray and black blobs coalesced and separated into Rorschach-like fields.

Like landscape, The Night was so large that different vantage points in the gallery yielded substantially different views. From the stairs, for instance, an aerial perspective revealed the way in which curving banks and shoals of the gray and black dots seemed to have been deposited along the juncture of walls and floor by complex currents of some kind. The piece’s perfect randomness inevitably suggested biological metaphors as well, including jostling groups of stained, aberrant cells, seen through an immense microscope.

Despite the obvious references to natural processes, what lingers is the dazzling, labor intensive artifice of the piece, achieved with an admirable economy of materials and means. Though The Night might recall Minimalist/Conceptualist works by artists like Mel Bochner or Barry Le Va, or even scatter pieces of the early ’90s, it gradually reveals itself to be more closely related to Ann Hamilton’s spectacular accumulations of humble but beautiful stuff: pennies, hair, metal type. Even more to the point would be a comparison between Apfelbaum’s transubstantiation of polyester stretch velvet and General Idea’s “ice field” made of hundreds of chunks of Styrofoam.

Without even getting up off the floor, The Night occupied and transformed the gallery. In a smaller upstairs space, a second piece (The Space Between Two Chairs, 1997) achieved a similar effect with a different set of parameters. Like blankets displaying wares at a flea market, a number of slightly wrinkled rectangles of fabric in Hello Kitty colors lay in no particular order on the floor. A handful of cutout stains had been arranged on the surface of each, in a way that looked as random as it did purposeful. Just as the piece itself defied pigeonholing—painting, sculpture, or installation?—an elusive effect or meaning hovered around the irregularly scissored edges of the rectangles, just out of reach.

Maria Porges