John Dilg Lecture: Retracing the Path of the Labyrinth–A Close Look at Tom Aprile’s Real and Mythic Daily Exits

Last winter, Iowa City and The University of Iowa lost a great artist and teacher, Sculpture Professor Tom Aprile. This fall, we celebrate his work with a show called Labyrinths and Other Daily Exits, currently on display in the Second Floor North Reading Room, at the UI Main Library.

Tom was a friend of mine and I would personally rather not do him the injustice of attempting to describe his work. It’s better to leave that in the much more capable hands of John Dilg, who has written this essay introducing the work currently on display. It is reprinted here with permission from Dilg and The University of Iowa Museum of Art. While it may be difficult to follow without any supporting imagery, I hope you will give it a scan and find whatever inspiration you need in order to visit the library and spend some time experiencing Aprile’s work.

Download and print a PDF of the essay (images included), here.

John Dilg will further elucidate these points in a lecture, “Retracing the Path of the Labyrinth–A Close Look at Tom Aprile’s Real and Mythic Daily Exits,” set to take place in the North Reading Room this Wednesday, Sept. 28, at 7:30 p.m.

Labyrinths and Other Daily Exits: The Art of Tom Aprile, brings together an evolution of forms embodying two of Tom Aprile’s recurring and related themes—“labyrinths” (as he defines them in the cover quote) and an examination of suburban domestic artifices; together these record the issue of entrapment as it was explored and depicted by Tom in a complex, complementary iconography of the labyrinth as metaphor and suburban domestic reality—the latter re-contextualized through “furniture (and) architectural fragments,” stressing the “unnatural” theater of suburbia.

In the “artist statement” for his solo show in Korea in 2007, Tom drew a comparison between the terror and anxiety of being trapped in the crumbling stairwells and floors of the World Trade Center and the experience of the seven boys and seven girls who were trapped in Daedalus’s labyrinth with the Minotaur. Tom elected to use the word, “labyrinth,” not “maze,” and it is important to note that the former is understood as having one path while the latter has choices in the pathway. Thus the labyrinth carries with it a more certain exit. It is a redemptive certainty—as he states, “perhaps to ultimately find peace at labyrinth’s end.” The beauty of the labyrinth as metaphor is this dualism: the acknowledgement of fear with an implied escape. The labyrinth is a symbol of difficulties overcome—intense problems that seem at first to only present ambiguous solutions. Constrained by fear but “hey, look!” there is a path through to another side.

Beginning in the late–1970’s, Tom used the motifs of walls, passageways, and corrals as predecessors of the form he came to call “Labyrinth.” The iconography of these elements has its origins in his suburban youth, outside of Cleveland. The artificial nature of split-level architecture became remade through his work as an imagery of containment, modified by the promise of escape. The “perfectly manicured bright green grass” evolves into a resilient “bed” that supported labyrinthine imagery. The domestic props of furniture became replications of the overbearing condition of growing up in this unnatural world.

The earliest image that strongly signals the succession of labyrinths is Two Walls, White Washed Windows, Oil Spill, from 1979. This was made at a time when oil spills were predictable front-page news and in this work the forces of containment of the spill are portrayed as walls. Sheet Pit, also from 1979, suggests the containment of other forces—here of animality—by a corral form.

Stage Set: Last Night in My Mother’s Dream Home, is a drawing that accompanied Tom’s performance of the same name in Oklahoma, in 1980, again seeming to stress entrapment and an exit that in this case the viewer inhabits—in much the same way that the TV viewer sits outside the narrative of a sitcom.

In the summer of 1982, Tom visited his relatives in Rosalini, Sicily. During this visit, and subsequently upon his return, he worked on a series of drawings from which Rosalini, A Portrait; Labyrinth; and A Long Way to the Ocean from My Room, Rosalini are here included. In these works is a wonderfully inventive visual correspondence with the 1960s Chicago artist’s group, Hairy Who, an imagery touching on a comic, illustrative sensibility. Their inclusion here, along with the drawing 1984, completed on January first of that year, allows us to see the relationship between the co-icons: enclosed domestic spaces and the complementary evolution of the labyrinth. In 1984, Tom installed a sculptural piece in a New York park, entitled Family Room with a View (not included in this exhibition), which is a grouping of chairs impaled by tall buildings. The image of a chair, impaled and embedded, would come to populate numerous sculptural objects after the 1990’s.

In his drawings from the 1984–1988 period, Tom continued to examine issues of escape as illustrated by passageways, tunnels, and cross sections of rooms’ architecture. Connecting Passageways; Cul de Sac; Daily Exits; and Last View, Last Time (for R.J. and G.A.) are also in conversation with the Hairy Who, as well as artists H. C. Westermann and William T. Wiley. The drawings’ comic update on the surreal demonstrates Tom’s many vantage points: passageways, surprise openings with new opportunities, extra-terrestrial adventures, contemplation in isolation, an emptying out of the past, and a future minimized by the past. The nightmare image of Connecting Passageways has a vertigo effect, like that of a Hitchcock film or the parallel realities of the 1960s TV series “Twilight Zone.”

In the 1990s, Tom turned his focus to the organic forms of woodcarving and the depictions of trees and landscape. He produced a strong series of carved images during his time on a Fulbright Grant to Nigeria where he studied with the master Yoruba carver, Lamidi Fakeye. Following his return from Africa, Tom continued his wood works and many pieces from this body of work were exhibited in 1999 at the Evanston Art Center near Chicago.

After completing this series of wood works, a more minimal tone is present in depictions of the labyrinths. With Drawer Stackup: New Floor, 1999, we see a pared down effort and the initiation of the idea that the insides of furniture—drawers—can be another kind of labyrinthine, passage-like icon. This also begins a period where there is a closer relationship between his drawings and his sculpture. Tom referenced artist Jackie Winsor, and the more minimal nature of his work after 1999 echoes her concerns for edited, pared down realizations. Two-dimensional works from the 2002–2008 period, like Large Labyrinth; Understructure Revealed; The Labyrinth Project, VCCA—1st Version; Labyrinth Fragments; What Remains with Cul de Sacs; and Remains Stored and Redesignated all reflect this more minimal focus.

Tom’s sculpture became more minimal, too. Cupboard and Bureau Inspection enclose and project the domestic furniture present in earlier work. Detention and Katie’s Chair have the chair re-playing its previous role as an object that is impaled. A “surrealist residue” is retained after viewing these works.

The sculptures in this show may be seen as an extension of both the earlier domestic sources we see in the 1980s narrative drawings and the evolving iconography of the labyrinth. The two Drawer Labyrinths, as well as Chained Labyrinth, are from 2003; in describing the drawer labyrinths, Tom said he found in making them “that a hidden world discovered inside of a secret place like a drawer was a little creepy, and creepy is good.” Bureau Inspection; Table for Drawer Labyrinth 1; and Katie’s Chair, all from the mid-2000s, continue Tom’s strong interest in embedding the nature of the labyrinth within the reality of the domestic.

The final two sculptures in the show, Cupboard and Detention, were completed in 2010, and introduce a lighter, lattice-like realization of the labyrinth. They are more systemic and as such become more minimal. Bureau Inspection is an especially strange work, animated by its “drawers pulled out—perversion” of a familiar domestic object. Here again Tom shares the manipulative process of Westermann—“drawing into and from” the expected narrative.

In these last works, the labyrinth becomes a locative, systemic representation of containment that acts to capture the domesticity of chairs, bureaus, and drawers, “locking” them in place and space. Here, the labyrinthine nature becomes less narrative and, more simply, a system of organization. This acts to turn the actuality of the mythic object (the labyrinth).

into the immateriality of thought. One wonders if this is what Tom meant by “to give others the opportunity to perhaps find peace at labyrinth’s end” for in these last pieces the idea of labyrinth and life itself are entwined in such a way as to see the labyrinth as a model of the (so-called) human condition.

It is helpful to see Tom’s work within the contexts of the shared concerns of the Chicago Imagists and the coastal corollaries of Jackie Winsor and William T. Wiley. Indeed, he clearly shared the comic, neo-surrealist qualities of the Hairy Who, Margaret Wharton, and H. C. Westermann. Like them, Tom directed his imagery to a kind of re-made interior narrative that acknowledged fear and alienation, surceased by a minimalist exit of humor.

We are told that after Daedulus lost his son, Icarus, to the sun and sea he himself flew on to Sicily. We do not know if Daedulus subsequently taught the Sicilians how to build labyrinths but, if he did, Tom Aprile’s Sicilian heritage became the seed that carried the promise of those constructs to be realized in his wonderful drawings and sculpture.

– John Dilg, July 2011