Washington, DC

Ida Applebroog

Corcoran Gallery of Art

Curated by the Corcoran’s Terrie Sultan, “Ida Applebroog: Nothing Personal,” brought together more than sixty of the artist’s irregularly shaped, multipaneled canvases from the last decade. The paintings were grouped by series—six bodies of work were represented—that were more easily distinguished by color and composition than by differences in subject or theme, which remain rather consistent throughout her oeuvre. The “Marginalia,” for example, tend to dark, single or paired figures on freestanding panels; the “Red” series, an extension of the “Marginalia,” takes its name from the color used to render the figures. Most of the other series (like “Living,” which features datebook notations that might have been penned by a surrealist Martha Stewart, such as “Restore Mama’s coffin” in 1956, 1995–96) are configured with a central panel framed by clusters of smaller images. Eschewing modeling, Applebroog creates grisaille forms by outlining or using a palette knife to build thick, viscous shapes of translucent pigment. Usually set against flat, monochromatic grounds, her figures have a deadpan quality that derives from their nondescript familiarity and the artist’s decidedly cool technique. They seem to have been recycled from well-worn illustrational sources, and enact generic scenes and poses such as stooping, embracing, or bending. Even figures shown vomiting, urinating, and hanged or otherwise brutalized seem somehow perfunctory, lacking any intensity of individualized feeling.

The exhibition’s strongest works were those using ancillary vignettes in filmstrip fashion around more complex scenes. In the enormous Emetic Fields, 1989, repeated images of a man picking up a coin, another swinging an axe, and a couple embracing frame a picture of a woman in high-heeled shoes strapped to cumbersome platforms; stooping under the branches of an apple tree, she struggles to walk amid the fruit strewn on the ground. Flanking these scenes on right and left are the huge, impassive figures of Queen Elizabeth, looking particularly unglamorous, and an ominously masked and gloved surgeon. Baby, baby, suck your thumb, 1994, has two large panels—one a scene, rendered in outline over a ground of Rothko-like rectangular forms, of anthropomorphic vegetables fighting; the other showing two women in bathing suits and black masks—bordered at top and left by frames of a urinating woman, a stooping man, and a boy sitting glumly with his chin in his hands.

These works, unlike the simpler “Marginalia,” present visual fields whose contiguous images ask to be read as narrative. Yet no clear course of events unites the surfaces. They seem rather to be anti-monuments to the commonplace—but to a singularly grisly version of the commonplace, in which everything is sinister and everyone cruel. The Eden reference in Emetic Fields, for instance, resonates with pain and indifference. Casual sacrifice is a matter of routine in Applebroog’s work: a bespectacled fellow in bowtie and tutu stares at a woman dangling from a noose in Marginalia (hangwoman/tutuman), 1996; in Jingle bells, shotgun shells, 1993, someone smiles gently as he leans over the headboard to slit the throats of the sleeping children cozily tucked in.

This macabre spirit, reminiscent of Goya’s darkest prints, pervades Applebroog’s paintings. People are vain and ugly, brutal and brutalized; families are dysfunctional; life offers no hope. But the artist’s unflinching insistence on the grim works against her in the end. When bathos is so unrelieved, without humor or the faintest possibility of redemption togive perspective and meaning to human actions, the art does not invite the viewer into any enlightening dialogue. Instead, it quickly inures one to horror, while planting the notion that all this misery might be in the eye of the beholder.

Howard Risatti