Marthe Aponte and a Lot of Tiny White Holes, Art Review by Charles Hood


Marthe Aponte and a Lot of Tiny White Holes

Art Review by Charles Hood


Marthe Aponte never went to art school, which may be why, as an artist, she’s so good.

Her status is surprising, at least it is according to social expectations, because she only started making art when she was in her sixties. (She is 79 now.)

Of course, if you ask me, sixty is not so old. Seventy-nine is not so old. Lots of time left. And for most of us, lots of unfinished projects. And so if you want to sing, go sing. If you want to paint, go paint. If somebody tells me, gosh, they are 90 years old, isn’t that too old to do something, I will remind them (a) so was Georgia O’Keefe and she was still working at that age, still making good art, and further, (b), if they are indeed 90, they are not too old to start an art career but they are unwise to dally too much along the way. They should make art now, with a fierce urgency, before the clock does indeed run out. Age and death—they are coming for us all, so let’s get busy.

If one were to make art, what about something like this? This piece below is by Marthe Aponte and is untitled, so I will call it Shield Number 1. On the screen, this is a nice pattern and all, but the original piece is three-dimensional, and each white dot is light: black paper was pierced with a needle to let light from a wall-mounted lightbox bleed through. The white is not pigment (or lack of pigment), it is light itself. This is where you say, “Holy sh*t, how cool.”

Marthe Aponte, Shield Number 1


This needle-through-paper process is called picoté, a French word originally, which makes sense given that Marthe Aponte is French herself originally, but is a modified, trans-national kind of French person by way of a two pre-art careers, one in Venezuela and one in California. In those other lives she was a teacher. She also at one point studied under Jacques Derrida, the famously abstruse theorist most closely allied with the literary movement called Deconstruction. The very short version is that Deconstruction is to everyday written language as quantum mechanics is to regular physics. Even though we were both at UC Irvine at the same time, I did not know Marthe back then; if I had, I would have told her to stop dicking around and finish the damn Ph.D. and get on with it. My relationship to Derrida and Deconstruction is complicated, though I did attend his public lectures. I don’t think I understood them. His secretary once tried to steal my desk, I know that. My feeling about college is that it is a good thing to hurry up and get over with and go out and get a job or make art or make babies or host poetry websites or do whatever it is that is your true and real purpose in life. Go to college for a little while, then move on.

Marthe Aponte did move on and after France and Venezuela and Derrida ended up getting a tenure track job at my college in the desert. From there, she retired early in order to do what she had always been meant to do, which is to get up every day and make art.

The art world, slowly, is discovering her work—last year she was in ten shows. Besides picoté, Marthe stabs, sews, coaxes, paints, glues, collages, and punctures. Her work is representational, but in a swirly, abstract way; it starts in the everyday world and soon takes us through that and past it. Some connections between the abstract and the representational I will share below.

Let’s look at the art. Shield Number 1 is black paper stretched over a round frame, about the size of a large, pro-grade tambourine. One pricked hole at a time, she has opened the paper up to create backlit designs. She works freehand, intuitively, driven by the music in her head and the dance of her fingers and the needle. When she is most intensely focused on art, the world falls away; she tells me does not want to stop even to eat or go to the bathroom. It is all about the art, the art, as she fills up with the passion of making. To view the finished work, a dark room is best, and it does need to be plugged in to get the full effect. What you are seeing in this on-screen version are my photographs of the work, done with a tripod and a fancy lens, as I shot long exposures in the dark.

Here, intentionally overexposed, is what Shield Number 1 looks like when it is hanging on the wall. I have artificially turned the lights back on by using software to increase exposure 200 percent. Note that we can now see the power cord hanging down like a pollywog’s tail. The frames are made by a craftsman named Chuck Overcash and he does exquisite work, but the juice has to flow from somewhere, so each of the shield pieces—there are ten, total—does have its own dangling power cord. In the dark, you can’t see them.


Marthe Aponte, Shield Number 1, Overexposed


I like this version, overexposed though it is. In the design I see plants, sort of, and stars / galaxies, and I know from talking to the artist that these circles are associated with wanting to create shields for herself. This series of ten pieces was during the Covid lockdown, when we all felt pressed by doubt, fear, isolation, and especially pressed by an alien, invasive virus.

Yet her point with this series is that no shield is ever fully complete, since weapons can pierce it or flow in around either side, so we always have light and dark, give and take, protection and vulnerability. We cannot keep the outside truly “out,” and at the same time our own luminosity will shine too, coming back out around the edges or through the gaps in our facade, a rush of light merging from the hot core of our being.

One of the things I admire about her art, and one reason that I wanted to share it here, is how it refuses to be didactic. It can be about gender (sewing as “woman’s work”), but it is never about only gender, and even when it does touch on gender, it does so lightly, playfully. Aponte’s art is always in conversation with multiple stories at once.

Here is another piece, which I will call Shield Number 2.


Marthe Aponte, Shield Number 2


Among other patterns here, one “echo” or visual handshake is with the Norse mythological tree of life, Yggdrasil. This tree is as immense as the known world, with roots deeper than time and branches that unite the cosmos. There are many portrayals of it, such as this 1847 version by Oluf Olufsen Bagge:


Oluf Olufsen Bagge, Yggdrasil, 1847


Speaking of visual echoes, is that a menorah in the center of Shield 2? Marthe Aponte inhabits a pantheistic sense of faith now, but she comes from a heritage that includes family members who had been swept up in the Holocaust, and so for her, the darkest parts of life and human history are dark, dark, dark indeed.

To return to the particle physics analogy, if light can be both a particle and a wave, then good art is both universal and specific at the same time. Bad writers generate a murky vagueness under the mistaken idea that by letting a piece mean whatever the reader wants it to mean, they are being generous or wise or all-accepting. I answer back that anything that can mean anything to anybody is a piece that means nothing at all, and further, if I am the one doing all the work, what do I need them for? I should add that a simple phone call to Marthe would confirm if this particular pattern of dots was intended to be menorah-like or not, but one reason I won’t do that is that it doesn’t matter what she intended. Artists in fact can be one of the most unreliable narrators of all: Shield 2 may have in it many more things than she consciously intended, and in that sense, the art makes itself and all of us are merely the vehicles selected to help magic rt into existence. Once the poem or painting or concerto is made, we are no longer needed. Talking to an artist is pointless—I may as well ask the picked-over chicken bones what they thought about Sunday dinner. They were part of the experience but do not get a vote in the analysis afterwards.

Variations on a theme, but what about Shields 3 and 4? Do they work for you? I am into them big time. Here they are:


Marthe Aponte, Shield Number 3


That one I call Shield 3. And here next is Shield 4.


Marthe Aponte, Shield Number 4


The artist likes flowers—I know that from visiting her house—but even if I had not been there to see the vase of flowers on the table, these pieces confirm that interest. Of course, everybody likes flowers, so no news there. More interesting is the question of perspective, especially in Shield 3. One interpretation is that the viewer is on her or his back, looking up at the night sky through branches or a meadow, similar to the way that Georgia O’Keefe portrays The Lawrence Tree, 1929. That painting has us looking up through the limbs of a ponderosa pine, night sky beyond. The “Lawrence” in question is D.H. Lawrence, who once wrote a short story under this same tree in New Mexico. The original painting is now at the Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art.

Scale slides and shifts inside these works, so sometimes I feel like I am looking through a microscope at diatoms and foraminifera.

To see if I am right, compare these two circles. First, Shield 5, then a hundred-year-old depiction of diatoms.


Marthe Aponte, Shield Number 5


And now through the microscope:



It is not an exact correspondence nor was it ever intended to be. The comparison is probably all in my head; did the artist want this particular association? Probably not. And I agree, the two pieces are similar but not an exact match. An identical copy of the diatom slide would serve no purpose anyway, other than to show off one’s technical abilities or to serve as an ironic comment on the impossibility of mimesis. What makes art be “art”—which is to say, what makes it something interesting for the viewer / reader / listener—is that good art takes the world and alters the source material, so what once was sand and ash now has become glass, or what was once black paper is now the backdrop for a glowing constellation of stars slash diatoms slash carved stone windows in the atrium of a mosque slash the cicatrix scars coiled up on the cheek of a tribeswoman from some part of Africa I have not yet explored. With good art, I start at x and end up at y. With bad art, one starts at x and ends up still at x, only wearier and with a blister. To put it another way, when asked “what is art,” the late, great Peter Schjeldahl answered, “Vacations from the self.”

The last shield I want to share here, Shield 6, is the one I call in my mind “Aboriginal Pathways.” This time let me do the comparison the other way around. First, this is the cover of a book from 1984. The circles on the art shown on the cover represent topographical features such as waterholes but also clan ownership of that topography, and, further, mythical narratives about events that happened in Dreamtime. Each dab of color was made with a stick (or a cotton swab); this image may not show it, but this is a “dot art.” Narrative, too: it is the equivalent of a USGS topo map showing landscape from above and it is a property deed and it is the local version of the book of Genesis, all of it, simultaneously. (And it looks cool, too.)



And now one final shield.


Marthe Aponte, Shield Number 6

I do feel as if the Aboriginal artists featured in my coffee table book would respond favorably to Marthe Aponte’s shield series, and might even be able to read the pieces better than she or I can; the radiant circles within circles would make perfect sense in the way they describe the world.

Hard work, being an artist. The world is very good at telling us we do not matter, and that we are stupid, and that we have nothing to say. You can finally get work accepted in a gallery show and then your work doesn’t sell, or worse still, at the opening, one overhears people saying unkind, uniformed things. You had better be hungry for art, to need to do it, since otherwise, when the Universe shrugs its collective shoulders and says, “Why bother,” you might start to listen.

Art involves craft, imagination, magic, luck, and more than anything else, a refusal to listen to the voices that tell us we are “too”—too poor, too gay, too straight, too busy, too old, too ugly, too stupid. I for one am glad that Marthe Aponte continues to defy all of those voices, just as I am glad that all the other writers and artists and musicians through history defied them as well.

That’s all any of us can do, right? Get up each day and change the world, one small white puncture at a time.




Primary artwork courtesy of the artist; other images used here via Creative Commons licenses or the Fair Use doctrine.


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