1.2 / Review

The Blue Planet

By Zachary Royer Scholz November 5, 2009

As a rule, I do not care for environmental art. While I share its cause, it usually does little more than beat me over the head with its message. Anne Appleby’s exhibition, The Blue Planet at Gallery Paule Anglim, is the rare exception to this rule, delivering an art experience that is subtle, resonant, and profoundly effecting. Painted in oil and encaustic on canvas, the works in the show use Appleby’s signature materials and minimal vocabulary to evoke the sublime beauty of the planet that we inhabit and continue to threaten.

Anne Appleby. 48º23’N, 89º15’W, 2009; oil and wax on canvas; 2 panels, 44" x 44" each; total dims: 44" x 90". Courtesy of Paule Anglim, San Francisco.

Appleby’s floating fields of color are paintings of earth and sky, land and sea, desert and ocean. At the same time, they are not. They operate as thresholds of interaction: the encroachment of water into land, stretches of parched earth and expanses of cool water, the blue-on-blue intersection of sea and sky. Though these relationships are perpetually in flux, the works in sum are calm, peaceful, thoughtful, and quiet, evoking the massive beauty and power of the blue and green sphere that we call home.

Like Appleby’s past works, each canvas is built by methodically layering thin washes of oil and wax pigment to produce unnervingly rich expanses of pure color. The waxed surfaces possess translucent depth, warmth, and skin-like smoothness. The pigment application deepens toward the middle of each canvas and feathers out toward the edges. This technique, similar to ones used famously by Robert Ryman and Mark Rothko, creates a central density that pulls the eye toward it like a magnet.

The six works in the show consist of pairs of monochromatic canvases: green and blue, white and grey, brown and blue, blue and blue, blue and brown, and blue and green. The last is the largest work, Mother E (2009), which evokes the expanses of verdant land and briny ocean that cover the Earth—the E its title suggests. Unlike the rest of the pieces in the show, the tall rectangles of Mother E form a unitary mass, an abstracted square atlas that structures our understanding of the paintings that surround it.

Anne Appleby. Mother E, 2009; oil and wax on canvas 2 panels, 72" x 34" each; total dims: 72" x 70".Courtesy of Paule Anglim, San Francisco.

The other pairs of square canvases lack Mother E’s stability but produce a more dynamic interaction. The deepened pigment at the center of each painting creates separated focal points that cause the eye to flit back and forth between the two halves. This disjunction thwarts the ability to create a gestalt at any given instant, and adds a glint of menace to the works’ general tranquility. Enriching the visual push-pull of this interaction is Appleby’s sensitive handling of the paintings’ edges, which in places reveal glimpses of her colorful underpainting. These glimmers of color reveal the works’ construction, and create a subtle secondary rhythm within the paired canvases’ larger pulse.

With the exception of Mother E, Appleby titles the works with directional coordinates of longitude and latitude: degrees and minutes North, South, East, or West. While suggestive of discernable or specific locations, this language of mapping more significantly connects these highly abstract works to the world and our presence within it.

The Blue Planet is on view at Gallery Paule Anglim through November 14, 2009.

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