When the first thumbnail ideas for what would become “Apotheca” hit the pages of my journal in 2004, I had already been thinking and fretting for years about The Picture Frame, its function, its potential meanings. Designing my own frames since 1988, I always saw them as something visually essential to the work, something more than a protective box for a pastel or a bit of architecture distinguishing the picture from its surroundings. I was more interested in the idea of the frame as a stand-in for the limits of our ordinary perceptual field - artificial, of course, since our peripheral vision blurs off at the boundaries of whatever we’re looking at and only foggily suggests itself as a rectangle. Up to then, most of my images were compositions in just that sense: they implied larger spaces, even infinite space, beyond the frame’s four walls, and all their formal elements worked out their interrelationships within those strict limits, the way a sonnet or a classical period symphony lives (or dies) within the confines of 14 lines or 4 movements. I’ve loved the challenge such limitations provide at least since the age of ten when my first serious painting teacher drew a dark charcoal line on the border of my first canvas and said something in the ballpark of: “This is the world of your painting, and everything in it must matter.”
But I have also felt for many years a strong interest in spaces that are actually, not artificially, enclosed: wall niches, recesses, and alcoves that seem to protect, or even treasure, their contents, and that have constituted, at least since 1994, mini-compositions within the larger context of whole pictures. “Apotheca” - from this vantage point - is only one step away from images like “Columbarium” or “The Garden of the Hesperides”: here the real frame, not the wall re-enacted in pastel, opens into the niche itself, the visual field of the painted image precisely corresponding in its dimensions to the dimensions of the niche. We see inside, not through, the frame, as if the frame framed a cabinet, or a hole in a wall, not a window.
My footnotes to the first “Apotheca” sketches are full of questions: how much of the “floor” of the niche, for instance, should I reveal and describe in pastel, and what about the shadow the frame/cabinet will inevitably cast on the black pastel at the top? I quickly realized that these concerns had to do with the fact that for years - for decades, really - I’d declared with perhaps suspicious firmness that I have very little interest in trompe l’oeil effects. “It looks so real I thought I could touch it” has always been a response to my work that disappoints me, but is that the response, I wondered, this work will inspire? I also knew (one can be grateful for having some experience under one’s belt) that my worries weighed nothing - always do weigh nothing - in the balance against the kind of excitement I felt for this idea. And when, in December ’05, a fresh thumbnail version felt absolutely on target, all problems resolved, I knew I was ready for the experiment. The overall scale; the design of the five pieces of wood (including the directionality of the grain); the wood itself (quarter-sawn oak) and its finish (ammonia fuming + shellac + wax); the contents of the niche (a huddle of old bottles, small in front, larger as they recede from us into the dark, along with one small nutshell); and the title, a Latin word for a place to store wine or medicinals - all of that fell into place in and around that sketch. Even the glass appeared to be a part of the cabinet, not just a bit of protective glazing over a work on paper we train ourselves as viewers of art not to look at. It seems to seal in the contents of the niche, revealing them to our gaze, guarding them from use and change, as if they were objects of religious contemplation in a reliquary, or the stuff of dreams, or as if they occupied the precious, unre-enterable space of the vividly remembered past.