Known for experimenting with so-called ‘craft’ processes, the artist began using dogwoods in her practice during a residency at Durham Press, Pennsylvania, in 2009. ‘We had been making woodblock prints for a long time, and one day a branch fell down off a dogwood tree,’ says Apfelbaum. ‘We got the idea to slice it and use that as the shapes for the prints.’ A happy coincidence – the great gift of Apfelbaum’s work, with her sensitivity to colour, pattern and shape, is the way it awakens her viewer to everyday serendipity. Spend enough time with (or curled up in) the artist’s work and more and more patterns will surprise you too.
Dogwoods in bloom are synonymous with springtime in the eastern United States. Most begin flowering in April. ‘They bloom, always, by the time of my wedding anniversary,’ says the artist Polly Apfelbaum. Yet (with a characteristic disregard for rules) her latest dogwood pattern heralds the beginning of winter instead: Dogwood Leap is a heavy, recycled wool blanket that brings Apfelbaum’s light sensibility to the year’s darkest days – before the cold lifts again for real.
"one day a branch fell down off a dogwood tree. We got the idea to slice it and use that as the shapes for the prints"
Running with the dogwood shapes, Apfelbaum played with ‘a gazillion different colours’ through a sequence of monoprints, including one for the Smithsonian Archives in a benefit celebrating Sheila Hicks. For Dogwood Leap, ‘I really love that the blankets use the tree’s very simple colours – my family always had a pink one and a white one’, the artist adds. Yes – just as a young dogwood’s bark starts smooth and gets a distinctive (almost scaly) pattern with age, Apfelbaum’s blankets feel residual with time and memory; slices of life cycles. Years pass. Spring turns to winter. Hard wood (and dogwoods are so hard they were used in crucifixes) is translated into something soft; in turn, the wool (once part of another object) is repurposed. A colour or a pattern you haven’t thought about for a while makes a welcome reappearance.
"the shapes relate more to the early organic floor pieces and big 'splats'"
This series might have begun with a fallen branch, yet formally Dogwood Leap has more in common with the ‘fallen paintings’ Apfelbaum was making in the 1980s. As opposed to the geometric forms that run throughout her oeuvre, ‘the shapes relate more to the early organic floor pieces and big “splats”,’ she says. Eschewing the ‘big, macho structure of the canvas’, as she puts it, ‘I would dye the fabric, and then cut each shape out,’ before creating compositions directly on the floor: a simple, playful gesture that challenges hierarchies between art and craft; in Apfelbaum’s words, ‘working promiscuously and improperly […] poised between painting and sculpture.’
Textiles and weaving would continue to play a vital role in the artist’s practice and in 1997, when Apfelbaum participated in a group exhibition titled Woven in Oaxaca at the A/D Gallery in New York, she made her first rug. Later, she reconnected with the same Mexican workshop for a rug featured in the Miss Dior exhibition, which opened in 2013 at the Grand Palais in Paris and later travelled to China. In late 2023, that rainbow houndstooth work will be showing once more in Nirvana at the Bernard A. Zuckerman Museum of Art (ZMA) at Kennesaw State University in Atlanta. Meanwhile, works inspired by Marguerite Davison’s famous pattern bible A Handweaver’s Pattern Book are included in the travelling exhibition Woven Histories: Textiles and Modern Abstraction, which is currently at LACMA until January 2024 and explores how and why abstract art has intersected with woven textiles over the past century. Drawings – studies for rugs – that were shown at a major exhibition at Birmingham’s Ikon gallery will be on view in To Weave the Sky: Textile Abstractions from the Jorge M. Perez Collection later this year, alongside a hanging textile piece inspired by a traditional wimple.
"In my work, I think, there's this chaos and love of freeform, and then there's wanting to organise, or geometry"
Often providing slippers so that viewers can stand on her rugs, you’d be hard-pressed to find an artist more truly down to earth than Apfelbaum. Not only do her textile works warm up the white cube and soften its edges, these are domestic materials – historically associated with female labour – that refuse anything so pompous as a pedestal and instead open up a different kind of gallery space that celebrates a wider understanding of artistry. Ever interested in inviting the viewer in to ‘a more immersive realm’, there is a special satisfaction in seeing Apfelbaum’s practice complete another lifecycle: from the gallery to the domestic sphere, viewers can quite literally get wrapped up in Dogwood Leap. While the wall-mounted ceramics that showed at London’s Frith Street gallery earlier this year resembled the composite fabric patches of quilts, this is the first actual throw that Apfelbaum has ever made.
It’s no accident that Apfelbaum often names her exhibitions after song titles or lyrics; in another life, she was surely a DJ. She knows when to keep time and how to sing to her own tune. Popping with musicality, Dogwood Leap's pinks and greens make the same sense as a bright chord. ‘In my work, I think, there's this chaos and love of freeform, and then there's wanting to organise, or geometry,’ Apfelbaum says. One the one hand, the desire to make sense of things, and on the other, the need for surprise; Dogwood Leap might just be a branch falling and catching you at the same time.
By Sammi Gale