Polly Apfelbaum: Anything can happen in a horse race

Polly Apfelbaum Las Vegas (detail), Long Gallery Photo: Andy Keate


31 January - 22 March 2009

This was American artist Polly Apfelbaum’s first solo exhibition in a UK public gallery. Her work is characterised by an exacting investigation into colour and form, mainly manifesting itself as expansive floor-based installations.

Describing her works as ‘fallen paintings’, Apfelbaum’s practice brings together two of the legacies of twentieth century American art history: Minimalism and Pop Art. In recent years, Apfelbaum has employed imagery appropriated from Pop’s father figure, Andy Warhol, in the form of dingbats and flower motifs. In addition to the floor-based installation work, these have appeared in many shapes and guises, such as vivid screen-prints, woodblocks or shapes drawn with dye on synthetic velvet. Other work is more abstract, utilising stains and blots that suggest organic form.

In a departure from her usual practice of fabricating the elements of her work first in her New York studio, Apfelbaum made all the new work for Milton Keynes Gallery’s exhibition on-site when she arrived, over the course of five days. For the artist, it is important for the work to be ‘situational’ and to involve an element of performance, in direct response to the gallery space. “I think it helps move the work away from the object, thinking of it more as a series of relationships, both in space, but also in time – the piece only exists for the duration of the show.” [Quote from an interview with writer and critic Morgan Falconer, Art World Magazine, February/March 2008]. This gives the work a more casual, impermanent feel – what the artist has referred to as an ‘automatic abstraction’.

In another departure for Apfelbaum, her new works used what appeared at first glance to be simple offcuts of highly reflective, sequined fabric. These hard-edged, spidery forms contrasted with her previous work which involved the aggregation of similar shapes and sizes. Instead they offered spatially ambiguous yet compelling colour-themed installations that evoke more calligraphic and abstract readings.

The installations in each of the Gallery’s three rooms refered to three famous American gambling cities – Las Vegas, Reno and Atlantic City. In Atlantic City, Apfelbaum explored the graphic possibilities of black, capitalising on the use of positive and negative shapes. Reno, a silver-themed room explored silver’s capacity to reflect and capture other colours while Las Vegas was a multi-coloured room which featured thirteen colours in sequence (a colour system determined by the available colours from the fabric manufacturer’s line).

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