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The culture of the ordinary

Deborah Oropallo focuses on the useful and puts it in a contemplative context.

June 05, 2003|Holly Myers | Special to The Times

The paintings in Deborah Oropallo's mid-career survey at the Palm Springs Desert Museum are filled with things that tend to warrant little aesthetic attention in the real world: doormats, coils of rope, pennies, admission tickets, coat hangers, toy train tracks, bags of flour, oil barrels and so on.

By pulling these objects out of context, however, and reproducing them on canvas, Oropallo endows them with a sort of grandeur. Moving through the spacious galleries that house the exhibition -- which are also filled with music chosen by the artist, primarily mellow electronic dance tracks -- one feels that sense of expansiveness that typically accompanies the experience of good abstract painting.

Indeed, these mostly large-scale canvases do seem closer to abstraction than, say, still life or landscape: While they are rooted in visual reality, their primary concerns -- and greatest virtues -- are in the realms of color and texture.

The conceptual subtext underlying the work is fairly straightforward and perhaps best explained by the Flannery O'Connor quotation that appears on the first page of the exhibition catalog: "The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it."

Oropallo's objects are all fragments of her immediate landscape: The oil barrels, according to a photograph in the catalog, sit near her West Berkeley studio; the coat hangers no doubt fill her own closets; the train tracks perhaps belong to her children. The intrinsic banality of these items, however, seems to strike the artist less as a hindrance than as an inspiration.

The exhibition begins with work from the late 1980s and falls into three general phases. The first, running roughly through the early '90s, is the least cohesive and, in light of numerous neo-expressionist influences, the least original. An early series of portraits based on old photographs, for example, is so indebted to Gerhard Richter as to border on sheer imitation.

Other works from this period employ such standard motifs as text, appropriated imagery and layering to unexceptional, if frequently pleasing, effect. The most memorable is "Escape Artist" (1993), a 7-by-6-foot painting in which four pairs of gesturing hands, theatrically lighted against black circles, float over a field of white that partially obscures a few dozen pairs of handcuffs and that appears to be yellowing around the edges like an old newspaper.

It is in the second period, roughly the late '90s, that Oropallo seems to hit her stride. Here she begins to focus exclusively on domestic and industrial objects, allowing each to dominate a canvas. Her palette is muted, consisting primarily of black, gray, cream and beige with an occasional splash of autumnal red or yellow; her technique is an appealing balance of trompe l'oeil (achieved through the use of silk screens) and painterly embellishment.

In "Tag Ends" (1997), a pile of irregularly bent metal coat hangers strung with Manila sales tags forms a fierce black snarl. In "Dolphin Safe" (1998), the circular tops of tuna-fish cans float in and out of what seems a milky sea of paint, some emerging silvery at the surface, others sinking a layer or two beneath. "Wounded" (1998) superimposes a pattern of lacy gauze on a field of dried-blood red. "Admission" (1997) is a Mondrian-like grid of intersecting lengths of red admission tickets.

A pile of toy train tracks would look fairly inert in itself. Whipped into the dizzying, 7-by-6-foot loop that dominates "Inbound" (1996), it becomes animated, dynamic, gestural, seeming nearly to vibrate with implications of speed and catastrophe.

In the final pictures, dating from 2000 and 2001, Oropallo essentially dispenses with painting altogether, replacing her silk-screen reproductions with digitally created photographic prints on canvas that convey her subjects -- mostly bulky industrial items like oil barrels, shipping pallets and gas canisters -- in bold, crisp colors against stark fields of white. Across these images, all quite large, she stretches what seem to be silk-screened veils of lace, mesh or plastic netting.

Though it is very striking, there is something ultimately unsatisfying, or perhaps just underdeveloped, about this work. While the bright colors are exciting, and the free-floating quality of the objects against their sterile backgrounds is intriguing, the purpose of the layered netting is unclear and somewhat distracting. One senses that Oropallo feels torn between a desire to remove herself from the images and a need to keep them from being mere photography -- which probably wouldn't be that bad.

One problem with a mid-career survey, clearly, is the sense of finality it conveys at a point that is, in fact, arbitrary.

It's quite possible that Oropallo has more successfully fused the elements present in these last paintings in work done since the exhibition opened in San Jose a year and a half ago.

As it stands, however, the show does perhaps the best possible thing: It inspires a compelling interest in this artist's continuing development.


'How To: The Art of Deborah Oropallo'

Where: Palm Springs Desert Museum, 101 Museum Drive, Palm Springs

When: Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sundays, 12-5 p.m.

Ends: June 29

Price: $7.50, adults; $6.50, seniors; $3.50, children, students, active military; children under 6, free

Info: (760) 325-0189 or

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