That’s the hashtag frequently attached to the Kinderhook-based artist Fern T. Apfel’s Instagram posts when she shares images of her work. It’s a subtle way of setting the record straight: despite how it appears, the work isn’t collage.
This common but inaccurate first impression of Apfel’s paintings isn’t completely off track. Her meticulous attention to detail and painstaking recreation of stacked handwritten letters and printed documents easily leads the casual observer astray. And, though relatively short-lived, Apfel’s early practice did incorporate collage, which would transition from a technique of assemblage to aesthetic sensibility in the form of distinct layers of paint and visible edges, which define objects within the frame. This trajectory is on full display in “Abide with Me,” a solo exhibition currently on view through February 25 at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy. It includes 63 works across several series centered on offering new ways of seeing things that are familiar to us, in the process redefining them and allowing us to experience them anew.
Apfel is a still life painter. Everyday objects of the past are collected, sorted, and neatly arranged before they’re translated to paint on canvas. Old calendars, personal letters, recipes, pamphlets, stamped envelopes, ticket stubs, diary entries, program notes, school attendance records, school textbooks, playing cards, dice, spools of thread, miniature figurines, and other small, old things are arranged using the semiotics of collage as a compositional guide, then set against a richly hued backdrop. Deep reds, jewel-toned blues, greens, yellows, and other colors fill the empty space, creating visual contrast and emotional depth. In the series “Worn,” items of children’s clothing are featured. Some of this source material is on view across two large display cases for context, helping us see how these and other old, forgotten, discarded, and lost objects are recreated and resituated into Apfel’s new visual logics, gaining importance and beauty in their rediscovery and arrangement.
More than a still life painter, Apfel is a treasure hunter, collector, documentarian, archivist, and storyteller all rolled into one. Her interest in the past and material culture offers much for the discerning eye and the curious thinker to consider. Looking at her paintings, one gets an expansive sense of humanity and a narrative timelessness that tethers the present to the past. Her focus on language goes deeper than the reproduced text from letters and other memorabilia. It serves as a reminder that the characters themselves are a kind of code, one that is often easily expressed and decipherable but has its limits. Clothing, too, is a kind of language. Materials, colors, textures, shapes, styles, and occasions tell stories. Old objects—absent of the humans who created, owned, exchanged, or used them—remain mysterious, incomplete, and open to interpretation while they are simultaneously charged with possibilities and meanings.
Most recently, Apfel added illuminated manuscripts as her muse. This shift is a logical next step for someone with her attention to detail, steady hand, and propensity for complex, time-consuming techniques. Illuminated manuscripts are hand-written books of text and painted illustrations and flourishes that originated in the 13th century. Illustrations are highly detailed and colorful but small, requiring precision and care in their construction. Apfel is drawn to this, as well as their use of sacred geometry and miniaturization. Her Contemporary Illuminated Manuscripts once more allow us to experience something familiar in a completely different way. I was struck by the way they recall the logic of magazine layout design principles: text, images, and blank spaces are organized and delineated by boxes, columns, and panels. They are carefully arranged in ways that encourage a dynamic relationship to the viewer. “I think of these pictures as modern remakes of an ancient tradition,” Apfel says.
Apfel is an ideal artist to bring ancient creative practices into the present. Each tiny letter, number, and line is scrupulously studied and replicated with an exactitude reserved for an ancient scribe. But her paintings also invoke the power of communication across multiple measures: language, color, geometry, shape, composition, use of space, texture, scale, touch, memory, and presence. Apfel’s work imbues an almost meditative quality to reflect this, calling to mind On Kawara’s “Today” series (1966-2013), comprising nearly 3,000 paintings created over the course of nearly five decades with nothing more than the day’s date. Apfel’s work isn’t quite durational, but like Kawara, Apfel paints thoughtfully—using tape, rulers, and pens to perfect the font and composition, and mixing paint colors until they’re just right—and she’s fearless about the amount of time a work requires.
Everything seems to come together in the conversation piece of this exhibition: 64 Squares, a large-scale homage to Ellsworth Kelly’s Colors for a Large Wall (1951). In this painting of paintings, Apfel brings her signature square picture style into Kelly’s massive grid. Where Kelly used randomness in his arrangement, Apfel opted for balance as her guide, keeping some of Kelly’s color choices intact and selectively adding imagery throughout. As with Apfel’s other works, this painting allows us to understand her subject better through her ability to communicate something new about it. It shows how the two artists are joined by their shared love of shape and color. Up until his death in 2015, Kelly was an integral part of the Columbia County community where Apfel lives. The decision to honor Kelly is as personal and communicative as the memorabilia she recreates in her paintings. In finding artistic inspiration in his work, something new was revealed for Apfel as well: “The truth is, I love to work small and intimate, and so it was a way to work small and intimate and large at the same time,” she says. “It was a way to be bold in an understated way.”
Fern T. Apfel’s “Abide with Me” is on view at The Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy through February 25. An in-person artist talk is scheduled for February 9 and a master class with the artist will be held on February 16.
Natasha Chuk is an independent arts writer, curator, and scholar.