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Reverence for things past: Fern T. Apfel’s Study, glasses.

Objects of Inspiration
By David Brickman

Museum Peace: Reflections on a Collection
The Columbia County Museum, Kinderhook, through Nov. 23

An artist’s mind is like a museum—typically, neither reveals more than 10 percent of what’s collected within. In an intriguing exhibition sponsored by the Columbia County Historical Society, Kinderhook artist Fern T. Apfel blends the two, and so opens a door to the creative process normally hidden from public view.

The premise of Museum Peace: Reflections on a Collection, which features about 40 modestly scaled paintings, drawings and collages, is that antique artifacts can form the basis of a contemporary body of work that is meaningful to our lives today. An artist’s statement says, “By invoking the materials of the past, the pictures speak about our present yearning for simplicity and authenticity.”

Working under a grant from the Decentralization Program of the New York State Council on the Arts, Apfel scoured the collection of this rural historical archive for objects that would then become the focus of her visual ruminations.

She chose things from everyday domestic life, including clothing (particularly that of children and dolls), kitchen and sewing implements, personal accessories and handwritten letters. Apart from a couple of service medals and a tailored vest, all of the objects pertain specifically to women and children. Even the medals and empty vest, coupled with the letters, imply not the presence but the absence of the men of the household, gone off to work or war.

What makes Museum Peace unusual is that the objects are displayed together with the art they inspired, enabling the viewer both to see how Apfel interpreted each artifact and to examine the artifacts per se. In an additional gesture toward revealing the artist’s process, many of the pieces are labeled as studies (though most of them look like finished works, not sketches). So one is encouraged to scan from object to “study” to more developed painting throughout the gallery.

It is a rewarding process. Apfel’s style is consistent despite the variety of media employed, and she has an accomplished polish to her handling of pencil, pen and brush. A signature of her method is to incorporate found materials into the paintings and drawings, and she often draws directly on antique paper remnants, including letters, envelopes, sheet music and, in one case, a commercial invoice.

Additionally, Apfel frequently uses writing in the pieces, echoing the meticulous script found in the actual letters. A couple of the works incorporate Hebrew lettering; it wasn’t clear to me whether this indicated a Jewish connection or, as is sometimes the case in contemporary art, a Christian Old Testament reference.

Apfel’s drawings, though masterful and delicate, sometimes feel more like illustration than personal expression. This is true in a group of studies of a doll and its clothing, where the artist uses pen, conte and colored pencil on colored paper in shades of slate blue, brick red and purple. The same doll appears in two larger finished paintings, where it goes beyond its role as an object of intense interest to become a player in a subtle allegory (the paint is actually water-soluble lithographic ink; the pieces are all on paper).

In one of the doll paintings, as with a number of others in the show, there is a strong suggestion of landscape and three-dimensional space. Doll (uncertainty) uses the color green and a horizon line to create a field in which the doll rests, apparently abandoned. At the top of the piece, applied postage stamps and paper fragments, together with markings that resemble the red “chop” prints in Oriental art, descend in orderly lines from the sky, bringing the eye back to the picture plane.

This push-pull from two to three dimensions and back again is present in much of the work. Geometric compositions enclose realistic images of rounded objects (a pitcher or teacup, a sewing basket) within a graphic color constructivism. The effect can be somewhat distancing, similar to the way the glass vitrines present (and protect) the objects themselves. But the richness of the colors warms up our response.

One painting, titled A child’s dress, crowds the flattened white garment to the edges of the picture, where it is suspended like a pinned butterfly for us to examine, lovingly. This compassionate treatment imbues many of the “studies,” particularly one called Study, glove, in which the drawing on an antique letter of a white glove suggests the hand that held the pen (or that of the letter’s recipient).

Other studies on envelopes evoke the tenderness the artist feels for these simple objects and, by proxy, their long-gone owners.

For those interested in an extra helping of Apfel, there is another exhibit featuring a handful of related works a 10-minute walk away in the North Pointe Cultural Art Center on Route 9 (opposite Stewart’s). There, a coffeeshop gallery features Apfel with two other painters, Mike Urbaitis and Andy Pelletieri.

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