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.