New York

Polly Apfelbaum

D'Amelio Gallery

Trends in contemporary art come and go with brisk regularity, yet pushing the boundaries between painting and sculpture is a perennial fascination. Polly Apfelbaum surfs this never-breaking wave with consummate skill, making “bi-formalism” a leitmotif of her floor-bound fabric installations, which have sometimes been referred to as “fallen paintings.” For much of the past decade, this painterly allusion has been grounded in Apfelbaum’s quasi-Expressionist patterning of high-intensity color on synthetic velvet. The cartoonlike floral images that animate her most recent installations flash back to Pop art—Andy Warhol’s flower paintings come to mind—but also establish links with contemporary painting, particularly the loopy doodling style of Laura Owens.

Whether the numerous component parts of Apfelbaum’s works (their fragmentation makes them feel more theatrical than “pure” painting) are scattered loosely about, pooled around the edges of walls and the corners of doorways, or arranged in a sharply defined rectangle like an area rug, the logic of her practice still resides in the conviction that there’s no going back to the idea of the art object as irrefutably singular or easily contained.

What looks solid from a distance in Cartoon Garden (Black and White), 2005, dissolves into a dizzying number of pieces comprising a puzzle painting designed to “fall” in a slightly different way every time it’s presented. It’s as though Apfelbaum is celebrating the death of painting and the loss of the original simultaneously. A densely layered rectangle of images of flowers, the work bursts with delirious harmony. Bouncing with kindergarten energy, it’s not so much upbeat as borderline hysterical. But unlike previous flower field pieces, all of which are charged with riotous color, the animated effects of Cartoon Garden are delivered in graphic black-and-white—and that changes everything.

Unexpectedly, Apfelbaum’s cartoon garden here reads as camouflage, triggering memories of downtown gardens coated with ash in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and suggesting the pervasiveness of conflict. The shift away from color might also represent the defusing of camouflage’s militaristic associations in the wake of its widespread appropriation by fashion design. Either way, it’s a dark departure from the more purely decorative feel of previous projects: Narrative and associative fragments here merge and shift, their metaphoric weight fluctuating with apparent unpredictability as the genre of landscape painting, to which they loosely belong, is subject to complex interrogation. Is this just a blip on an otherwise bucolic screen, or a promise of more, and darker, gardens to come?

Jan Avgikos