evocative conveyors of the ambiguity of contemporary existence and the power of visual perception.
Born in Hackensack, New Jersey, in 1954, Oropallo comes from a family that traces its history to the southern Italian city of Sant'Agata dei Goti, near the ancient city of Pompeii. References to her Catholic upbringing, her two immigrant grandfathers, and her Neapolitan genealogy appear often in Oropallo's works.2 In fact, her early paintings have been described as "self-referential." Some critics have asserted that Oropallo's works relate to ancient Italian art, especially the Pompeiian frescoes.3
Oropallo's fascination with Pompeii led to a visit in the late 1980s. Standing among the ruins, she experienced a powerful revelation: "I was struck by the strong resemblance between the women depicted in the frescoes and the women in my family."4
Oropallo's interest in art surfaced when she was about fourteen years old. Her older sister, an art student at the time, frequently took her to visit New York City museums. After graduating from high school, Oropallo traveled to France to study painting in Aix-en-Provence, where her brother-in-law was an instructor at the Leo Marchutz School of Drawing and Painting.
I was struck by the strong resemblance between the women depicted in the frescoes and the women in my family.
While in graduate school, Oropallo began to experiment with oil pigment and its various qualities.5 The artist's delight in the sensuousness of painting is obvious; critics describe her as a "superb technician" and an "exceptionally talented artist who has . . . a real old master's touch."6 Other critics describe as "too beautiful" her intuitive use of multiple, superimposed layers of oil glazes that endow the surfaces with an inner, glowing light."7
Her image-text paintings are based on ideas and issues she finds personally and universally meaningful. For example, in 1986, when Oropallo began producing the works known as her "How-To" paintings -- characterized by charts and diagrams that examine how certain things are put together -- her subjects included anatomical ure studies, blueprints for violin assembly, instructions for animal taxidermy, and plans for brick foundations.
The artist's delight in the sensuousness of painting is obvious; critics describe her as a "superb technician" and an "exceptionally talented artist who has. . .
a real old master's touch."
Floating passages of texts began to materialize in Oropallo's work in 1987. Initially her sources were news stories related to natural disasters such as earthquakes, tornadoes -- even the sinking of the Titanic. In Partial List of the Saved, Oropallo superimposes the alphabetized list of survivors over an image of the doomed ship. She integrates the text and images, achieving a haunting effect as the names, painted in red oxide, blur and run, as if dematerializing before our eyes.9
Some of her image-text paintings are inspired by contemporary events. The Los Angeles riot, for example, motivated Oropallo to create Three Man Patrol. Her tripartite composition of larger-than-life police officers dressed in riot gear, holding their truncheons in combat-ready position, establishes a confrontational relationship with the viewer.
The construction motif may allude either to Oropallo's brick-mason grandfather or to the fragility of human existence despite the "best-laid foundations."
The image-text paintings often invite multiple interpretations and associations. For example, in discussing the work entitledO, the artist confessed her affinity for the alphabet -- o is the first letter in her last name as well as the first letter in the familiar fairy-tale phrase "once upon a time."11 However, the alphabet litany "A is for axe and that we all know; B is for boy who can use it also" was selected from the lyrics of Lumberman's Alphabet, an old logging song.12 Juxtaposed with an eerie line of owl silhouettes, it invokes a disturbing notion of gradual annihilation. In fact, critics have linked the work to environmental concerns, specifically the endangered spotted owl, noting how "overlying this depressing metaphor is a series of stripes, much like a set of vertical blinds that if we could close, we would be able to shut out the disaster at hand."13
In her more recent works, Oropallo derives startlingly visual narratives from well-known fairy tales and folk myths. Using texts and illustrations gleaned from classic children's stories about temptation, transformation, and rescue, she constructs "a world in which events or actions and their consequences are clearly linked."14 Three of these masterful paintings are represented in "American Kaleidoscope."
Oropallo's version of the popular tale of Little Red Riding Hood, The Wolf, depicts the girl and the wolf as the two emerge from a dense, dark forest. By eliminating unessential details, Oropallo causes the viewer to focus on the spotlit pair standing in the shadowy clearing. She underscores the intimacy between the figures through their stance and eye contact. Red Riding Hood, who coyly turns to glance towards the wolf at her side, is portrayed, according to one critic, as a "capable, brunette pre-teen in mantilla fit for a Goya seductress."15 Further allusions to Goya are evident.
The officers' stances, their armatures of power, and the accompanying excerpts were culled from a police riot-control manual.
Note Red Riding Hood's downturned gaze, which directs attention to the concentric oval rings of a shooting target superimposed on the wolf. Is Oropallo suggesting a new ending for the centuries-old story? Is she implying that instead of the girl's tragic end, the wolf should be murdered "before he commits mayhem?"16 Or does Oropallo propose that the best resolution for beasts -- not just male seducers, but all asocial, animalistic tendencies in society that prey on innocent children -- is their annihilation? On the other hand, might she be suggesting that happy endings are not assured, even in fairy tales?
She underscores the intimacy between the figures through their stance and eye contact.
The Wolf is one of three paintings devoted to Little Red Riding Hood. An earlier work, titled The Forest, where Little Red Riding Hood appears dressed in a similar red, white, and blue ensemble, shows Oropallo dealing with the same issues of shifting perspective and comprehension. Instead of solid white stockings, Red wears striped leggings. The wolf, at her side, is barely visible. Again, the two are alone in a clearing, but instead of narrow, vertical lines that blur and alter the scene, large dark ovals loom over the painting's surface. These ominous forms, which gradually obliterate the figures, metaphorically eliminate any hope for either's rescue.20
In another version, Little Red Riding Hood, Oropallo was inspired by events from real life. In this disquieting composition, narrow stripes in the color of fresh blood merge into a solid red field at the painting's lower half. The artist places strings of photocopied newspaper text as if it were cutout paper dolls dangling across the upper half of the canvas. Silhouetted against overlapping layers of stripes, these half-hidden silhouettes of dancing dolls look benignly innocent. The text, once we read it, turns out to be the story of a little girl's abduction.21
One of the world's best-known fairy tales inspired Snow White. The sparse compositional grouping of four blood-red apples, an ornate frame, and flecks of white paint alludes to this classic story of sorcery and revenge.
Is Oropallo suggesting a new ending for the centuries-old story? Is she implying that instead of the girl's tragic end, the wolf should be murdered "before he commits mayhem?"
The concept of loss and renewal also seems to be a preoccupation in Pinocchio . A scattered pile of wooden logs is stacked like a funeral pyre, while murky shadows envelop the pieces of timber, heightening the grim atmosphere. Yet across this desolate setting, Oropallo places seven text ovals. Working as both poet and painter, she has produced a gracefully lettered Times Roman text -- excerpts from the delightful Italian folk tale about a mischievous marionette who longs to be a human boy -- describing how the fairy allows woodpeckers to restore Pinocchio's nose to its normal size.
These ominous forms. . .
metaphorically eliminate any hope for either's rescue.
Oropallo's use of images from popular culture, her tendency to efface works, her manipulation of text and letters, and her use of layered and repetitive forms can be compared to that of Jasper Johns and Larry Rivers.22 Take, for example, Johns's Gray Alphabets, in which the twenty-six letters of the alphabet and numerals from zero to nine are barely discernible. In spite of our familiarity with alphabets and numbers, these are still hard to see. They blur and dissolve before our eyes. Johns's letters and the numerals of decimal notation have been characterized as symbolic of modern civilization -- tools of our literacy, our existence as an economy, and our scientific civilization.23
Like Johns, Oropallo seems to pose questions about our civilization and how it can be rescued for future generations. Indeed, at a time when few American artists are producing history paintings, Oropallo's morally uplifting images are meant to inform and enlighten society.24
Oropallo also suggests humankind will resort to "lessons learned" as a means to endure and survive.
Oropallo reminds us that it is through childhood stories and fairy tales that we learned how to deal with suffering and loss, and also learned to dream of hope and triumph. Thus her works seem to parallel the belief that fairy tales can be a "dynamic part of the historical civilizing process."25 When confronted with the possibility of obliteration, Oropallo also suggests humankind will resort to "lessons learned" as a means to endure and survive.
Gwendolyn H. Everett
2. Jamie Brunson, "Deborah Oropallo: The Painted Text," ARTSPACE 13 (September/October 1989): 59.
3. Maria Porges, "Text and Image Metaphors," Artweek, 28 May 1988, 3.
4. Oropallo, telephone conversation with the author, 22 January 1996.
5. Oropallo, telephone conversation with the author, 8 November 1995.
6. See Mark Levy, "California Contemporary Art," Art and Antiques (September 1988): 72; Walter Thompson, "Deborah Oropallo at Germans van Eck," Art in America (December 1991): 111.
7. Oropallo, telephone conversation with the author, 8 November 1995.
8. Brunson, ARTSPACE, 60.
9. See Bill Berkson, "Deborah Oropallo," Artforum (September 1988): 149; Porges, "Text and Image Metaphors."
10. Oropallo, telephone conversation with the author, 22 January 1996.
11. Oropallo, telephone conversation with the author, 22 January 1996.
12. Oropallo, telephone conversation with the author, 22 January 1996. Oropallo explained how she found the lyrics in a children's book with the same title, Lumberman's Alphabet (1938), in a local library.
13. See Terri Cohn, "Narratives," Artweek, 3 June 1993, 18; Maria Porges, "Deborah Oropallo," 43rd Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting (Washington, D.C.: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1993), 74; Bill Berkson, "Apparition as Knowledge," Oropallo (San Francisco: Stephen Writz Gallery, 1993), 7. In a telephone conversation with the author, Oropallo denies any direct relationship with environmental issues, citing instead a personal tragedy.
14. Maria Porges, "Deborah Oropallo," Oropallo (San Francisco: Stephen Wirtz Gallery, 1993), 11.
15. Berkson, "Apparition as Knowledge," 8.
16. Porges, "Deborah Oropallo," Oropallo, 12.
17. Porges, "Deborah Oropallo," 43rd Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting, 74.
18. Berkson, "Apparition as Knowledge," 7.
19. Porges, "Deborah Oropallo," Oropallo, 12
20. Ibid., 13
21. Cohn, "Narratives," 18; Porges, Oropallo, 12.
22. Porges, "Text and Image Metaphors," 3.
23. Philip Fisher, Making and Effacing Art: Modern American Art in a Culture of Museums (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 58-59.
24. Maria Porges, "Quick, Quick, Pause," Artforum (May 1991): 111-12.
25. Jack Zipes, Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization (New York: Wildman Press, 1983), 11.