In Fern Apfel’s Troy exhibition, words embody art

But Apfel’s are not collages at all. These are paintings that look as if old letters, playing cards, and other bits of ephemera have been pasted onto flat, geometric surfaces. Although painted with great detail, the works are also not quite in the style called trompe-l’oeil because they do not attempt to create the illusion of depth. These are detailed paper objects held flat, often surrounded by large undecorated areas.

When you first see her recent Abide with Me show at the Troy Center for the Arts, solid geometry dominates: white rectangles spread across square wooden panels, sometimes in neat little carousels, and other rectangles neatly facing each other something else. Up close you find the faint texture of acrylic paint throughout and the carefully painted words.

The lyrics are where the works spark curiosity. In the gallery, persistence will be required to read the longer pieces (many handwritten, others rendered in simulations of mechanical type or typewriters). But I imagine that at home on a wall you would gradually work your way through the layers of words, digging out any potential meaning.

Stay With Me: Paintings by Fern Apfel”

Where: The Capital Region Arts Center, 265 River St., Troy

O’clock: 9am-4pm Monday 9am-7pm Tuesday-Thursday 9am-4pm Friday 10am-2pm Saturday


Take one, “Dear Parents,” showing the charm of a real typewritten letter full of uncorrected errors. The source material (which I assume to be genuine) appears to be postmarked from 1935 on an envelope also in the painting. A small excerpt: “Enclosed (if I remember to put it) is a deal that came with the slime that Miss Mara told me to get for the two 1 blisters.” It does not represent anything in particular – except a piece of prosaic life, which can still is something.

Other paintings approach the text in a more fictional way, the words are applied directly to the design without imitating an external original such as a journal page or letter. One using bold gold on vermilion palette, begins with the conjugation of the verb “love”. The lowercase leads you from top to bottom in some over-the-top parody of grammatical variation, though for some reason I don’t think it’s trying to be funny. “Rocking the Elms” uses the same color scheme, but here several adjacent columns present small gold text, short lines breaking mid-word, beginning with the abbreviated “My Dear Mrs Ellio…”

No doubt some viewers will find this whole process thin, as the appropriated lyrics often run in cute incoherence. Nostalgia often reigns supreme – you won’t find hard news or Twitter feeds here, nor commercial fonts. Even the silent series of paintings of children’s clothes against a plain painted background continues this leveled, attractive—and pensive—mood.

I found at least one exception, a piece called Remember Me. Here, between dark horizontal stripes, a series of horizontal lines represent handwritten names followed by ages. The title loaded and the numbers were less than 20. Not knowing what they actually meant started to bother me, so I turned to Apfel—reluctantly, preferring that artworks (and art exhibitions) work on their own terms. as they would for anyone. The artist emailed: “…the names are of some of the children killed in school violence in our country over the past half century.”

It’s a discovery we all deserve. There is resonance here. If only more of her work had an edge—not just political bite, but anything that could make the viewer cheer. Apfel’s sophisticated, truly beautiful method of designing and executing her paintings deserves this.

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