The first thing you should know about the artist Ida Applebroog, who is currently featured at the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA), is that there is a lot to know about her. The New York City-based 86-year-old has been drawing and painting quirky, disturbing, politically charged artwork since the 1960s, making her a formidable figure in the feminist art movement.
Examples of her small, cartoon-like drawings and watercolors; of her mini “zines”; and several large-scale paintings, all from five decades, are on display. But the most indelible is the series of 104 sketches from 1969-70 documenting Applebroog’s time in a San Diego mental institution. Titled “Mercy Hospital,” these have been hidden away for almost half a century; this exhibit is in fact her first solo museum show in 20 years.
Darkly humorous, these works combine text, India ink and watercolor to create a personal diary of a deeply troubling time in the artist’s life. They are like postcards from her daily life dealing with depression. Some are fairly abstract, amoeba-like forms — sometimes scary — in muted and muddied color, with scribbled tag lines such as “A bad day at Mercy,” and “What does it all mean?” Others are lighter and more figurative; one reads “It’s a blooming Xmas tree.”
The introduction to the exhibit includes her series of small books, or her version of zines, each one telling a little tale with few words and simple drawings. They are usually of a couple, or a single soul, looking out a window, or sitting on a lone chair, or lying in a bed. These snippets of life, made in the mid-1970s, are both melancholy and cartoonish, their simplicity belying the complexity of what is being expressed.
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Apparently, Applebroog sent these to various people — artists and otherwise — across the country. Some would be returned with an admonishment to stop sending them this stuff. Called “mail art,” it was considered a form of avant-garde communication.
Not surprisingly, Applebroog’s biography is as intriguing as her artwork. She was born into an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family in the Bronx in 1929, with what she would describe as an abusive father. After marrying Gideon Horowitz, they moved around in pursuit of his academic career, first to Chicago and then San Diego, where she had a breakdown. The mother of four checked herself into Mercy Hospital.
According to a profile in The New York Times, when she got out, she changed her name to a version of her maiden name, Applebaum (although she remained married for 60 years until her husband’s death this year), and at age 45, became “a feminist boundary-breaker.
“Her technical prowess as a painter has been accompanied by a fierce commitment to questioning business as usual; the clichéd concepts of female beauty and sexual pleasure; the power dynamics between men and women; the violence that percolates, like bubbling lava, through ordinary life,” The Times wrote.
Bubbling lava is an apt description of Applebroog’s journey as experienced at this ICA exhibit.
Her very recent 2012-15 large paintings, the “Catastrophe” series, are aggressive yet also softly fluid, stunning works using basic lines and composition to reveal again disturbing narratives. Employing pea-greens, browns, grays and black, the ink bleeds on the Mylar and has the effect of blurring the lines, so the paintings have a hazy quality. There’s a patient strapped to a stretcher, a row of empty chairs, doctors prodding or gauging people’s bodies. It’s a nightmare of institutionalized life.
Also at ICA are three other solo shows: Brazil’s Laura Lima’s site specific and (sort-of) performance piece, made from rope and live-performers’ legs, on the ground floor; and the very contemporary installation comprised of strange sculptural creatures and dwellings from Berlin-based Renaud Jerez.
But it is the drawings of New Zealander Susan Te Kahurangi King that are thematically and even spiritually related to Applebroog. King started using crayon to depict her cartoonish world, this time inhabited by recognizable cartoon Disney characters who are mashed together with more abstract figures, limbs and totems, all of which create something akin to a topographical map of a bizarrely populated world.
King, however, started producing her drawings when she was a child, after she stopped speaking at age 4. Born in 1951, she created her self-taught art until she reached her 30s, when she simply quit. She would not resume drawing until 2008. But throughout all those years, her family kept the trove of her prolific work.
At ICA, more than 60 drawings from the early to the later years are exhibited on the walls and encased in glass stands. It might be easy initially to pass over them as almost musings, but they are intense tapestries telling tales that the unspeaking King only relates through her detailed imagery of a trance-like existence and history. Although she is considered an “outsider artist,” not trained or associated with any particular movement, one can’t help but look at her hyper-populated canvases as a contemporary take on the Flemish master Pieter Bruegel the Elder, whose detailed observation of village life and landscapes were ground-breaking in their 16th century day.
All four exhibits are smart and worthy of a visit, markers that Miami remains vibrant all year round.
But Applebroog stands alone. This amazing selection of a truly fascinating artist’s long, productive and exploratory journey reminds us that art can affect us in a gut and emotional level, not just as a cerebral exercise. While Applebroog has been praised for her skill and breadth of styles, her ability to touch you in unexpected ways is why you will want to go back to the beginning of the exhibit, and follow her around again. Her daughter, the artist Beth B — who as a young teenager didn’t understand why her mother disappeared into a mental hospital — has made a documentary about this journey. The South Florida premiere of “Call Her Applebroog,” in collaboration with O Cinema, will be shown on Oct. 29.
If you go
What: Ida Applebroog, plus solo exhibits from Susan Te Kahurangi King, Laura Lima and Renaud Jerez
When: Through Oct. 30
Film: “Call Her Applebroog,” shown in cooperation with O Cinema, 1 p.m. Oct. 29 at ICA.
Where: ICA Miami, 4040 NE Second Ave., Miami
Info: Free; www.icamiami.org