PRINT November 1987


Post-Modern culture has brought us into a zone of ghosts, of shells of people and things embalmed by the word “simulacrum.” We confront waves of mass-media images that simulate moments of feeling and being. In this hyperreality, we can no longer distinguish the surreal. The present is a charnel house of images and image fragments. It is impossible to imagine, much less have, an authentic feeling.

IF THIS TYPE OF ARGUMENT, made so often in contemporary discussion of art and at least part on the button, has started sounding dead-end and programmatic, perhaps that’s because some of its apologists have implicitly hit the nail into a coffin instead of on the head. Often it seems the production of meaninglessness is a fashionable way to fit in; this vicious cycle extends the media’s blanching effects rather than constituting an esthetic critical act. But what if an artist, instead of describing this emptying out of meaning, can extract something personal and oneiric from these “no one’s home” images? Michele Zalopany is such an artist.

Zalopany makes large black-and-white charcoal-and-pastel drawings based on a wide variety of news photos, reproductions, and postcard-type views. She may alter these images in some way; in Without Them, 1985, for example, she has omitted the photograph’s people, leaving a moodily lit thatched building with clouds hovering above it and pigs running out of the open doorways. By removing the people, and calling attention to this in the title, the artist opens up what one suspects was one of those typically closed, colonialist, schoolbook-geography images. Rather than allowing us yet again to consume the world in the photograph without recognition of its people, Zalopany depicts what we do—a world “without them.” This imaginative empathy differentiates her work from what it reminds us of—whether photorealism, appropriation, Hollywoodization, suburban alienation, or nostalgic recall. To start with, these reminders look anything but unconscious. They seem to be part of what she means to remind us to reexamine.

Zalopany doesn’t use a slide projector as an aid in making her pictures. Instead of trying to replicate the images, she finds a way to mine them, explore them, and transform them into a foundation upon which to express identity. She uses the tactility of black charcoal and white and gray pastel, and their contrasting tones of dark and light, to introduce a dramatic emotional atmosphere into her work. These drawings especially magnetize the feelings we get when we look at documentary photographs, and when we see speculative proto-photorealist work such as that of Richard Artschwager and Malcolm Morley. Like Artschwager, particularly in his paintings on Celotex, Zalopany finds an irreducible presence within an already consumed and thus supposedly empty image. Like Morley, particularly in his paintings of cruise ships, she chooses cliché images to suggest something personal and autobiographical.

Sifting through the public archives and reassembling her own, Zalopany moves among the cliché, the banal, the private, and the fictive. One of her subjects is surely the photograph and what it contains for her. Among her recurrent images are decaying villas, security-tight modern houses, close-ups of children (mostly girls) and young women, large empty rooms—empty bar, empty restaurant, empty bedroom—with overstuffed cushions and lots of gilty curves, and ethnographic documents such as Edward S. Curtis’ staged photographs of Indians. Together, the works suggest not only a broad, idiosyncratic kind of collective family album of archeological shards, but also the residue of a lived life. The bric-a-brac-filled rooms recall, among other beginnings, dollhouses, while the ethnography brings to mind those fixes we allow ourselves when we encounter the Other.

The varying tonalities of the charcoal and pastel, the chiaroscuro stresses of light and dark, range from a hushed romantic warmth to a stark, wintry clarity. Light glows from within, as if from some flash cube that was used to illuminate the scene. The mood is sometimes reminiscent of film noir. Charcoal is an old depictive tool; uniting it with photography, and causing these two media to interpenetrate one another, Zalopany’s work achieves a cross between the handmade and the machine-made, the inherited and the self-created. The moments she has chosen may be framed, yet their meaning remains open. The frame becomes synonymous with both a field of vision and an inchoate psychological state. The works have the vividness and the mystery of a dream recalled immediately on waking. They come to convey both immanence and absence, departure and arrival. Derived from fairly standard views, the scenes are framed in such a way as to make one feel as if one were approaching a house, or had just entered an empty room. The bric-a-brac and furniture, already mementos, become strands of the narrative. (In King Pleasure, 1987, the shadow of a chandelier is as substantial as the object itself.) An intense feeling of vulnerability dominates the drawings. Like voyeurs, we spy on Zalopany’s empty rooms, finding them both enchanted and haunted. Looking becomes synonymous with sifting, which parallels the artist’s process of choosing her images.

Zalopany’s drawings describe the moment of an intensely focused gaze. Through that intensity, the past is projected into the present. The charcoal can be seen as a literal metaphor for memory, which one might see as the ashes of experience. Like an archeologist or a detective, Zalopany explores the residue now. Her images enter a realm in which looking, remembering, and imagining become intertwined. The moody light that pervades many of the drawings resembles memory’s glow—a kind of heat that attracts us like moths. Is it the heat of a connection with our own experience, or is it that we are shocked that she has had this experience too—that we are prevented from fooling ourselves into the narcissistic belief that our childhood was special, unlike anyone else’s?

The work suggests another possibility: the state we are drawn to is one of oneiric contemplation and release. Everything we look at has the potential to ignite in us a range of personal associations; the mass media try to tap these associations, and to use them to shape consumer desire. Zalopany’s drawings work in reverse. Beginning with the common, she seeks to discover the experience embedded within. The images are fragments; as we piece them together, they become the record of the artist’s attempt to discover the bedrock of her self through her empathy with an Other—with us, who have also been there before.

Zalopany’s work doesn’t argue against the thesis that the media can empty images out as well as pass a wand over them. Who hasn’t heard the story of the child who, after watching Peter Pan, climbs onto a bookcase and tries to fly? Back then, what did you think you were looking at? In choosing empty rooms, Zalopany explores our response to these social places before language and action made us get the message. Somehow, the tactile surfaces of these works have us recall being babies, and those early states of intensely physical feelings. The images provide a way for us to reach back to this earlier period, as adults. If myths are the results of efforts to account for events of all kinds, then art is that part of us that tries to find our earliest moments of perception.

John Yau is a poet and critic. His most recent books are Roger Brown (New York: George Braziller) and Cenotaph (New York: Chrome Press), a volume of poetry.