Ida Applebroog has developed her signature style over the course of a five-decade career. Most of her works, from flip books and films to composite paintings and installations, generate elusive narratives through the juxtaposition and repetition of images. The same principle holds for her recent exhibition “The Ethics of Desire,” which could be viewed as a single montage sequence.
The show began in the lobby of Hauser & Wirth’s Chelsea venue with a row of metal folding chairs, each with a hand-painted cartoon on its seat or back. The seemingly naive drawings are vaguely disturbing: a woman carrying a naked man piggyback, Jesus crucified on a ladder, a naked child holding an American flag. The piece is coyly titled Please Don’t Sit on These Works of Art (2014).
The side gallery was dominated by a large multi-panel painting of nine naked women marching in file in thigh-high boots and silver helmets, their white bodies luminous against a background of yellow and purple. Much larger than life, the women exude a gleeful single-minded energy, and their seriated limbs create a reverberating visual rhythm. A triptych that hung on the other side of the room depicts three more nudes, in explicit postures exposing their sexual organs; the figures are about human-size, and the pictures were placed low, so that one’s eyes were level with their inscrutable faces.
In the main gallery, the 1978 video It’s No Use Alberto was screened on a monitor, while the cut-out paper figures used to make it were displayed on wooden blocks nearby. A woman has intercourse with a headless man; an angel lectures to a couple; several well-dressed men and women huddle closely together. Illuminated by spotlights, the figures and their stark shadows seemed a vital extension of the video, and the video’s snippets of stories and music added to the suspenseful atmosphere of the installation.
The majority of the cavernous space was occupied by a recent body of work. Suspended from the ceiling singly or in groups were more than 30 pieces of Mylar, each over 9 feet tall and showing a naked man or woman. Rows of folding chairs lined up between them divided the space into narrow segments, creating twisting paths for viewers and seeming more like an integral part of the installation than like potential seating. The figures are drawn in thick outlines, with flat areas of diffuse color here and there; each has a distinguishing attribute—a cowboy hat, a crucifix, a prosthetic leg, a protruding and scarred belly. These men and women present the cold appeal and vaguely aggressive postures of catwalk models. Despite their monumentality and composure, however, they look as fragile as oversize paper dolls.
Press materials related the exhibition to Plato’s Symposium, a candid discussion of different levels and varieties of love. That classic text is in part a debate on the moral education of youth and the possibilities of shaping human desires to produce ethical behavior. The reference may be a clue or a distraction, but Applebroog’s work certainly entices us to scrutinize our impulses for their moral and social implications.
Anyone who still thinks female sexuality is defined by lack, take note: three substantial exhibitions running concurrently in New York recently presented vaginas in rather stunning abundance. Two of the exhibitions were wonderfully various group shows called “The Visible Vagina.” (They appeared at the Francis Naumann and David Nolan galleries.) The third was Ida Applebroog’s “Monalisa,” the centerpiece of which was an installation of the same name using images derived from more than 150 drawings of her own vulva that the artist made in 1969; dozens of the originals were also on view.
Monalisa (2009) is built on a wooden scaffold nearly 10 feet high and roughly 12 feet on each side; its upright studs (the humor of construction terminology is not subtle) are spanned both inside and out by digitally manipulated versions of Applebroog’s 40-year-old drawings, which she made lying in a tub and using a mirror. Greatly varied in detail and graphic approach, they range from reticent to bold, wispy to lush. Water damage that occurred in storage adds atmosphere to many. As output onto vellumlike Mylar and gampi paper, they are each distinctive enough to seem like faces thrust against misted windows. Since those on the inside could only be glimpsed through narrow openings, viewers had to press their faces against the metaphoric glass in turn, assuming a position both beseeching and erotic.
Applebroog also included images of two actual faces in Monalisa, one over life-size and staring boldly from the middle of the exterior front wall, though its dark sepia contours are liquid enough to seem in danger of sliding off the surface. The second sits atop a body to which it appears ill suited, the whole rendered in saturated blood red. A single piercing blue eye stares straight out; the figure’s other eye is obscured by a thatch of hair. A kewpie-doll mouth pouts. The body below is lumpy and childish; one leg is bent, exposing the girl’s pudendum. Based on a greatly enlarged photo of one of the tiny figures Applebroog has lately been forming in nondrying clay expressly for use in such compositions, this image is a powerfully disturbing mix of defiant sensuality and infantile helplessness.
Ranging across nearly a century of art production with work by artists from Picasso to Carolee Schneemann to David Humphrey and Michelle Segre, and accompanied by a substantial catalogue and a lively panel discussion, “The Visible Vagina” had an irrepressible spirit of collective celebration. By contrast—and the comparison was useful—Applebroog’s show was retrospective and profoundly personal. Its repetitions were those of furious concentration, loneliness and deep private pleasure. Though a much broader exhibition of the 81-year-old Applebroog’s remarkable, often devastating work would be widely welcomed, this was a terrific tease.
Photo: View of Ida Applebroog’s installation Monalisa, 2009, gampi, Mylar, ink, wood and mixed mediums, approx. 9 by 12 by 12 feet overall; at Hauser and Wirth.