IDA APPLEBROOG The Ethics of Desire
Hauser & Wirth | May 14 – July 31, 2015
Ida Applebroog’s third show with Hauser & Wirth, The Ethics of Desire, is titled after a concern at the heart of Plato’s Symposium—how desires form the contours of our lives. The artist tackles the topic with three separate bodies of work made 38 years apart. With ample room to spread out in this gargantuan space, the exhibition is really three shows in one—Applebroog joked at the press preview talk that she was giving herself a career–spanning retrospective, something she has yet to have at a major U.S. museum.
The show’s emphasis is on a new body of work made between 2012 and 2014—32 9-foot-tall translucent mylar works printed with ultrachrome ink, the first such digital prints she has exhibited. Suspended from the ceiling and dramatically lit, they depict male and female nudes in Applebroog’s characteristic illustration-like style. Sourced from images of models taken from fashion magazines (and catalogued over the years in Applebroog’s extensive archive), the figures are nude save for their shoes—and sometimes hats and gloves. In her refiguration of these people, Applebroog has removed their clothes herself, undoing the ostensible purpose of such images. Inhabiting the same room are seven sets of arresting shadow puppets from 1977, as well as the 1978 film Applebroog made with them, entitled It’s No Use Alberto. The last group of works is a series of 29 steel folding chairs that line the hallway outside the main exhibition space, onto which Applebroog has sketched miniscule drawings: an embracing couple, a woman falling through a hole, a hooded wolf, and other images taken from her sketchbooks. Disparate though they may seem, all of the works speak in varying degrees to several of Applebroog’s career-long concerns—violence and psychosexual trauma, the irreducibility of the physical self, and relationships of power.
While the digital prints are given the most real estate, the white metal chairs are the show’s most compelling component. For many years, Applebroog has been making drawings-on-furniture as a way of coping with her own post-exhibition sense of loss, what she refers to as a sort of post-partum depression. Putting such afterbirth on display is a radical act. It is an intimate revelation of the artist’s own desires and a commentary on the value of artistic labor. By putting these woe-inflected drawings on display, Applebroog erases the distinction between work made privately and publicly. Her intimate drawings become political statements. Two chair drawings in particular, which depict a naked, headless mother squirting milk into the mouth of a long-legged infant and a monster-ish infantile creature giving birth, speak to the fraught relationship of mother-child/artist-artwork.
Using a chair as her canvas enables Applebroog to foreground the domestic and the domestic object as legitimate sites of artistic labor. In these works, something small and insignificant and not necessarily intended for viewing becomes an object of contemplation and a legitimate site of inquiry. The title of this series, Please Don’t Sit on This Work of Art, feels tongue in cheek, but also speaks to the point of acknowledging these as works unto themselves. That’s not to say that the domestic is simply celebrated. As is the case with much of her work, the trouble that exists within domestic space is interrogated and laid bare in the drawings, which at their most unsettling depict a woman showering in what appears to be blood and another female figure climbing a ladder with something erupting from her behind.
Although Applebroog’s practice of doodling on chairs originates with the used furniture she would seek out for the purpose, the chairs used for this exhibition are the types of folding chairs that are closed and opened, again and again, for temporary events or gatherings. In this case in particular she is referencing their use in fashion shows. In the main room, the same chairs sans drawings are interspersed with the scrim-like mylar hangings in groups of four. These chairs are for sitting and they seem to beckon an audience, providing a place from which to contemplate the skinny model bodies, what we’ve been taught to see as emblems of desire. Applebroog asks us to sit and spend time with these nude, laden forms and examine our desire as everyday voyeurs (and perhaps that process is nudged along by some of the more goofy figures—a naked cowboy, for instance). While such chairs signify an ordinary place for audience members to sit, Applebroog turns that “natural” use on its head and provokes us to confront our own spectatorship, our own desires as spectators. From this vantage point, one might conclude that desire is multivalent, irreducible, troubled, and elastic—something not so easily taught in a symposium.