Anne Appleby | Reviews

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Essay by Kenneth Baker
Abstract painting can still give people trouble. Perhaps they resist abstraction merely because it resists them - embarrasses glib response, defies all effort at verbal translation. In any case, whenever I publish favorable comment about a show of abstract work, especially monochrome painting, readers fire off vitriolic rejoinders. Many indicate a refusal even to confront the objects in question.

Painting as spare as Anne Appleby's does more than confirm the logical silence of the art object. By not telling us what to think about as we look at it, not telling us even whether thinking is called for, it strands us with the noise of our own mentality and tacitly demands that we calm ourselves enough to tolerate any consequent discomfort. Resentment is a likely response to this perceived abandonment. Even that might be fruitful, though, for someone willing to wonder whether resentment - brittle, defensive anxiety - may be the posture to which our culture predisposes us in situations that impose unsought self-awareness.

The tenor of Appleby's work contains echoes of classic minimalism. The impact of minimal art in its heyday was to heighten the viewer's sense of responsibility for transactions between themselves and objects, and so, by extension, for what transpires between them and other subjects. Spare and severe in form and detail, early minimal art was often accused of being "empty," whereas minimal artists were striving to surpass what seemed to them an uncritical sense of content shared by most artists and the public. Early minimalism redirected outward the search for art content, beyond object and subject, toward the art works' physical and institutional setting and the circumstances of viewers' encounters with them. The nature and position of the viewer's own subjectivity was - and remains - the most problematic aspect of this attempted reorientation. (Its easy canonization by museums has proved to be the second most troubling aspect of classic minimalism, as anyone knows who remembers the time when no critic could imagine the word "classic" ever applying to it.)

Minimalism in the early 60s was a gambit favored mainly by sculptors and by painters such as the young Frank Stella, Brice Marden and Robert Ryman, who pushed their work as far toward objectivity as possible.

The situation has changed dramatically since then. In the early and mid 60s, minimal sculpture like that of Donald Judd, Robert Morris and Carl Andre seemed to define standpoints outside the ricochet of cross-references that define the culture at large. Painting seemed to be at a disadvantage because, no matter how spare it became, it could never banish echoes of the medium's long history as a representational vehicle. However, the increasing speed of image circulation in the intervening decades has meant that today we believe no artifact stands outside the culture's nexus of cross-references. Every picture, whether in the popular or high art sphere, touches off a chain of implicit references to others like it. The consequent "end of originality" is held to be a benchmark of the passage from modernism to postmodernism, whatever the dates we put to it. And with the heightened speed of image traffic has come a de-emphasis of the distinction between things seen firsthand and things seen in mediated form.

In the current context, even fully abstract, minimalistic painting like Appleby's seems to function allusively. Monochrome painting eliminates imagery but in the current cultural setting it cannot eliminate referentiality, the sense that all paintings connect to other paintings by influence, resemblance and convention. Yet, by dint of its style, abstraction as Appleby practices it has unexpectedly regained some traction. For the very spareness of her work minimizes its apparent quotational aspect. It quiets not only the viewer's perceptual agitation but also the ambient buzz of cultural cross-references. It also introduces the thought that these two levels of agitation may be in resonance. For these reasons, among others, it is abstract painting more often than sculpture that seems capable now of deepening a viewer's experience of the present point in time and space. What that depth is, or can be, is presently at issue in work such as Appleby’s.

The tension between abstraction and representation is not what it was even 50 years ago, yet at one level it has survived the cultural transitions of recent years. Paintings that live by imagery, even pictures as idiosyncratic as those of Chardin, Cezanne or Morandi, do not radically upset the common sense of what a picture is or of painting's function as fictive analysis or dramatization of conscious awareness. (Photography was a major influence on that "common sense," and digital imaging is likely to alter it in the near future.) To one degree or another, all representational painting flatters us by holding up a mirror to our giddy inner dishevelment that pretends to reflect back a stylishness, expressive freedom, theatrical poise or knowingness that we wish we possessed.
Appleby's paintings offer us none of that. They do reflect back to us certain of our real subjective capacities: the ability to make fine discriminations among hues, for example. The titles of multi-panel pictures such as "Spruce" and "Summer" evoke the power of memory to sum up manifold experiences in single sensations. The door-like size and proportions of the triptych panels in "Red Willow, Winter Birch, Aspen" stir a bodily impulse to enter into them that only the mind can follow.

Studying an exhibition of Appleby's work gives one the sense of her work as a highly compressed notation of landscape experiences. Taken that way, her paintings assert that imagery is no longer the means by which such perceptions can be genuinely shared.
Implicit in that viewpoint is a notion of what is genuine or crucial now in observations of the real, and that notion, I believe, rather than her art's own presence, is what Appleby seeks to objectify by means of abstraction. We begin to grasp the idea as soon as we notice how the colors in a complex work such as "Wild Clematis" seem to change as our attention shifts from one monochrome panel in the array to another. Each color seems to become itself only when - and only as long as - we focus on it.

This internal chromatic ambiguity of Appleby's paintings is their essence. Rather than represent, they demonstrate an aspect of the real: that quality of it that seems to rise to meet our scrutiny, that confirms perceptually our participation in the world we see.

- Kenneth Baker

The following article is taken from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 23, 2000:
Distinctive Artists Make Most With Minimalist Approach by Victoria Josslin

It's an odd thing, but minimalist artists, who often claim to work in the service of purity, can wind up making surprisingly sensuous objects.

So Sol LeWitt begins with the premise that "the idea becomes a machine that makes the art," follows his systematic plans, and creates works full of ambiguity and mystery. Agnes Martin's penciled grids seem to whisper and ripple. The hard-nosed empiricist Donald Judd becomes, as one wag called him, a "closet hedonist."

In two very different shows now at the Greg Kucera Gallery, Anne Appleby and Jeffrey Simmons each demonstrate the rich results of restraint and control.

Appleby works in rectangles, sometimes several rectangles hung together as one piece. Each panel is made of 30 to 40 coats of oil paint and wax, usually on wood, sometimes on canvas. She varies the colors, and we get glimpses of earlier layers on the sides of the panels.

Straight on, though, the works give the impression of having eroded away at the edge. There, we see a little more texture, and subtle changes in color. The middle is more opaque, and seems denser.

The titles make a huge difference in how we see Appleby's work. "Wild Clematis," "Spruce" and "Horsetail" tell us that the artist is drawing her pared-down palette from nature (she lives in Montana).

The three panels, one gray and two different greens, of "Lodge Pole Pine II," for instance, use color as a kind of code for the primary qualities of the plant.

The titles give the work the final shove into minimalist Romanticism. It's like religious painting with all the narrative taken out, leaving only the halo.

In Jeffrey Simmons' first Seattle show, at the Linda Cannon Gallery, in1995, he shocked us with spin art. Remember spin art at school carnivals? Here it was again, hanging on the gallery wall. Simmons is still working with spin art, pursuing two paths simultaneously.

Kucera has one example of the retinal overload path, "Bloom." The big, gorgeous acrylic painting is reeling around in the back gallery.

The rest of Simmons' paintings here, all works on paper, are the precisionist path. He's working with finely controlled geometric figures, mostly concentric circles. He's still spinning them, discharging the loaded brush on the turning paper, but now with the accuracy and focus of a diamond cutter.

Simmons is working in watercolor, and his palette is as finely controlled as his hand. He calibrates each stripe, for width, saturation and for color. The narrow bands of color are so regular that they look dimensional, like layers of colored paper, sliced through at an angle. He moves from groups of bright stripes through areas of musty, smoggy stripes, from small variations of color to extreme difference in color and in value. It's easy to read concentric circles as targets.

The unsettling outcome of all this fine muscle control and fine mental control is that many of Simmons' works read as the impossibly tidy leftovers of some violent action, as if the paper had been drilled through by a bullet. They're small, tense and stunning.

Although their products are very different, both Appleby and Simmons are working in a stripped-down language, in which every detail is magnified, every sensory stimulus exaggerated.

They will repay sustained looking - impatient viewers won't find much.

The following article is taken from the Seattle Times, November 12, 1998:
Anne Appleby: Paintings and Etchings by Robin Updike

Anne Appleby is a Montana painter whose muse is the natural world around her. She watches the trees and wildflowers of the Rocky Mountain West and the Pacific Coast with a keen eye, noting the slide in the color of a leaf from verdant, dazzling spring green to a darker, late-summer sunburned reddish moss.

She can describe, in oil paint and wax, the difference between the blue gray of Aspen bark at one time of the year to the slivery, dove gray it becomes later. Her deceivingly simple-looking paintings and prints have names such as "Douglas Fir," "Sage," "Sweet Pine" and "Western Cedar."

It's tempting to describe Appleby as a nature painter, though that would be misleading.

She's an abstract minimalist with an astonishingly finely tuned sense for color. Color is what interests her. And, as the new show of her work at the Greg Kucera Gallery demonstrates, she makes beautiful, lusciously-colored paintings.

In the new, wide-open Greg Kucera Gallery space, Appleby's grid-like squares of subtle color may at first look overly plain, as though a color-field painter decided to dice up her paintings into perfectly controlled little square worlds. But Appleby's paintings are meditative, and they reward those who spend the time to really look and those who are mindful of what she is trying to do.

In "September," one of the only paintings in this show not named for a specific tree or plant, two 68-inch-by-34-inch wooden panels have been painted shades of yellow / gold. The left panel is a pale butter yellow; the right is a much richer ochre gold. Appleby says the painting is about the color of wild grass in Montana in September, and it seems to glow with late summer heat. You want to put your face in it and smell the dry, nutty odors of early fall.

An equally evocative painting is "Douglas Fir," made up of three panels, each 24 inches square. The left panel is a juicy summer green; the center is mauve; the right is a subtle brown rose. The painting refers to the needles and the bark of the tree, though, like all paintings in the show, the colors are not meant to exactly duplicate the colors Appleby sees in the natural world. She says she responds to the colors she sees in the outdoors, and she refers to them in her work. But her intent is clearly to evoke the memories of those colors, not to copy them.

To make the paintings, Appleby layers as many as 50 coats of color over the plywood boards. It is these many layers of underpainting that give the finished works their seductive luminosity. Close inspection shows that the panels themselves do vary slightly in color and texture from their centers, which tend to be deeply opaque, to their edges, which often become slightly lighter in color tone and which often have barely noticeable brush strokes.

Appleby, who has some Native American ancestry in her family tree, apprenticed for 15 years with an Ojibwa spiritual leader and master craftsman, and she has said that he taught her to look for the spirit of a creature or plant rather than becoming preoccupied by its surface characteristics. Appleby obviously has learned to translate that "interior" observation of the natural world to her paintings.