PRINT May 1991


To gaze at the river made of time and water
And recall that time itself is another river. . . .

—Jorge Luis Borges, “Arte Poética

IN DEBORAH OROPALLO’S PAINTINGS, as in the flowing current of Borges’ river, there are many different kinds of time: the hours of making work and the years of acquiring skill, the solitary imagined time of remembrance and the shared time of history. Through an adroit manipulation of a repertoire of mnemonic devices, she conducts the pace of our reading of these temporal themes as we navigate a river of narrative. It flows, like time, from the past into the future, revealing the lessons of history as resonant in contemporary life and experience.

Combining some kind of text with these images meant to make us remember, Oropallo invokes 500 years of art history in order to talk about the present. Under discussion here, in the odd codes signaled through the smoky shadows of these deliberately theatrical works, is (among other things) the obvious question of how someone can be making paintings like these—openly the conjunction of skill and sentiment—in the last decade of the 20th century. In the work of most contemporary image-text artists, the words and pictures float to us through the timeless eternal Now of mass media and advertising. In place of such cynical, highly graphic, impact-oriented images, Oropallo presents us with evocative objects and textures embedded in the deep time of the conventions of realist painting. These things come to us out of a smoky, amber-tinged light: pieces of rope or fringe, bugles, small birds, disembodied hands, floating hats, forming mysterious tableaux vivants. Like the players in a repertory theater company, many appear in a variety of roles, shifting meaning as they shift context from one painting to another.

The groups of graceful letters bannered across Oropallo’s highly polished surfaces function in much the same way. For one thing, the message conveyed in many of her paintings is quite literally cryptic, in that Oropallo uses actual codes, among them the system used by magicians to communicate with their assistants, parlor games and word tricks, flag signals, and the international maritime radio signals for noting different kinds of pain. Already distanced from us by being framed in strange crypto-languages, the alphabetical fragments are put at a further remove through the way they are rendered. Their ghostly appearance suggests a clouding of mist on glass, half wiped away, alternately hovering in the foreground or dissolving into chiaroscuro. Oropallo’s hand-formed letters (a throwback to text’s early ancestors) are as much loved objects as they are abstract symbols. They embody the warm imperfection of type cast from hot lead, rather than the chilly regularity of computer-generated forms. Like the amber glow suffusing the pictured events to which they seem to refer, their self-conscious patina of age reminds us that, without the objects by which we measure it, time cannot be seen.

Let us suppose that the idea of art can be expanded to embrace the whole range of man-made things, including all tools and writing in addition to the useless, beautiful, and poetic things of the world. . . . In effect, the only tokens of history continually available to our senses are the desirable things made by men. . . . Time, like mind, is not knowable as such.
— George Kubler, The Shape of Time

The large amount of text in works like Magician’s Code or The Puzzle of the Laughing Sailor, both 1990, reminds us of the difference between reading and seeing. This evocation of a page from a book is made even more specific in Gray’s Elegy, 1990, by the addition of a large, painstakingly rendered capital letter O in the upper left corner—clearly, the O of “Once upon a time.” The story buried in this pale field of faded letters is actually a single line from the poem of the painting’s title, “The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,” rearranged some 25 different ways. A borrowed image provides an illustrative flourish to this parlor game (itself borrowed from a book of educational entertainments): glued to the middle of the painting is a cracked and peeling naive canvas of a happy farm scene that suggests, in gentle hues of blue and umber, the ploughman’s destination. His patient labor is seconded by the rows of white letters, the “reading” of which conducts us through a recitation of the virtuous hours spent on craftsmanlike rendering. Still, the faint chant of blurred letters merely provides a frame for the expeditiously appropriated pastoral image, suggesting that labor—however devoted and of whatever kind—is not enough.

In The Shape of Time George Kubler suggests that the history of art can be described as a series of problems that define, by their gradual resolution, sequences of artists and ideas. Some sequences—Greek vase painting, for example—appear to be finished, closed to any new innovation. Sometimes, however, an individual can find a way into one of these sequences that is more profound (and more interesting) than appropriation or pastiche: “The map seems finished: nothing more can be added; the class of forms looks closed until another patient man takes challenge from the seemingly complete situation, and succeeds once more in enlarging it.”1

Nowadays, when every artist is virtually expected to reinvent the wheel, the stylistic terrain Oropallo has chosen to survey may seem romantic or sentimental. What brings her vista compellingly into the present is that it is merely the point at which her encrypted narratives begin to unfold. Offering a commentary on the varying pace of historical change, she sometimes employs different time signatures within one work, most notably in the manner in which the different parts of paintings have been executed or assembled. In the same way that following learn-to-dance diagrams requires that we move at different speeds, making our way through these images necessitates that we perceive sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly: pause, quick-quick, pause, quick-quick.

In Gray’s Elegy, for instance, the faint text, hand-lettered like an illuminated manuscript, contrasts sharply with the “readymade” image collaged onto the center of the canvas. In a number of other works, Oropallo repeats this practice of physically layering images, in most cases cutting up her own abandoned paintings and giving them a second life as elements in a new composition. In Hat Trick, 1990, the floating rectangle of heavy-looking, flat curtains that dominates the center of the painting has been made from two pieces cut from another work. (Through the dark red overpainting, some lost silhouettes of text can be dimly perceived.) Between these physical slabs of fabric decorated with elaborate painted fringe, a narrow opening reveals a vertical succession of hats and hands. The mimed action of a hat trick has been painted rapidly in a soft grisaille, suggesting photographs, the most rapidly generated images of all. This speedy bravura provides a marked contrast to Oropallo’s patient rendering of the curtain’s gold fringe, the many gleaming strands of which have been executed with the same careful craft as the lace collars in Velázquez’s portraits of the Spanish nobility.

Just as the gorgeous illusion of all that Spanish finery breaks up into dabs of color on close examination, so does the solidity of the row of fringe. In both cases, the image is meant to be viewed from a certain distance — namely, the necessary interval required for the magic of painting-as-theater to work, as the something-more-than-trompe-l’oeil curtains slyly remind us. A final scrutiny of its splendid decoration reveals the magician’s arm, hiding behind the fringe.

Actuality is when the lighthouse is dark between flashes: it is the instant between the ticks of the watch: it is a void interval slipping forever through time: the rupture between past and future. . . . Yet the instant of actuality is all we ever can know directly.
— Kubler, The Shape of Time

Now you see it, now you don’t.

The elegant flock of flying gloves in Sixteen Measures, 1986, suggests that Oropallo has been thinking about the historical role of the artist as prestidigitator for some time. Sleight of hand, the art at which Harry Houdini was perhaps the greatest master of all time, convinces us because it jogs our memory: we think we know what we’re seeing because we’ve seen similar gestures before, and expect to see them again. Anticipating in this way, the brain connects the gaps and makes the illusion work. In Oropallo’s work, the practice of stage magic becomes a metaphor for her own practice as a painter, as she manipulates the visual mnemonics of perspective and rendering.

In Houdini, 1990, the bound magician lies prostrate, almost covered with rope. Bugles, used in other works like Mouthpiece, 1989, to suggest the military call to arms, are present here in their role as accessories in Houdini’s wife’s allegedly successful attempt, with the help of a medium, to open a channel of communication with her husband after his death. The words lettered across the gloomy backdrop to this scene are the text of Houdini’s message to her from the beyond. Translated from his own private code, it says, “Rosabelle, believe.”

A fragment of the magician’s code forms a background for the figure of Houdini, tied this time to a ladder, in Houdini Challenged, 1990. Rigid strands of carefully rendered heavy golden cord float across the canvas both before and behind him, reading simultaneously as a metaphor for escape and as a screen for some kind of magical subterfuge. Taken originally from a picture in a rope catalogue, Oropallo’s rendition is clearly as much a coded text as are the words in the shadows. She has used this sign for rope many times, most notably in paintings dealing with water safety and in a number of works about the Flying Wallendas’ escape from a circus fire. Here, the rope reiterates the overwhelming focus of the composition on Houdini’s bound form, framed by the ladder and the rectangle delineated by the lines of text. An irregular square of canvas collaged onto the center of the painting suggests a secret way out, although the dark translucent red used to define it also signals danger of some kind. Escape, Oropallo seems to be suggesting, is through belief itself. Her focus is not on Houdini’s death, but on his ultimate survival, his rescue by history.

For [George] Santayana’s fin-de-siècle readers, beauty was, above all in works of art, the visible promise of enduring or even eternal values, and a respite from a crass, harsh world.
— Arthur C. Danto, “How Beautiful”

History painting, once a dominant genre, all but disappeared after the turn of the century, having reached a zenith of kitsch in the late 1800s. Paintings by John Everett Millais or Lawrence Alma-Tadema depicted imagined scenes in Merrie Old England or Ancient Rome through a consciousness that was completely contemporary—in fact, Modern. The figures in their paintings looked like Victorians in funny clothes; their environs, like theater sets.

A hundred years later, the work of artists like Oropallo suggests the possibility of a comeback for the genre, although in an unexpected form. What is being depicted in her work is less the history of events than of consciousness—through the unexpected vehicle of things. Paintings have always been populated with objects that represent, sometimes more or less arbitrarily, some quality, state of being, or idea: fidelity, mortality, virility, truth. Without a common cultural language, however, such an iconography no longer works. The way in which Oropallo’s cast of objects shifts in significance according to context is an astute observation of the way anything, provided the proper setting, can be made to seem meaningful. Despite that, for Oropallo, it is only through material experience that both time and real feeling can be genuinely known.

This paradox reveals the artist’s troubled thoughts about the history we are making: fears, shared by many, about surviving disasters both natural and man-made. In works depicting catastrophic events—the gulf war, oil slicks in Alaska, boats lost at sea, a tornado, a plane crash, etc.—objects are not used to represent suffering and loss but to focus on acts of rescue and survival—on a kind of transcendence through belief. In The Captain’s Prayer, 1989, for example, a bullhorn, surrounded by seven little stencil-like images of the Virgin Mary, floats in the cloudy darkness. The painting is Oropallo’s response to a newspaper story of the sinking of a ferryboat off the Philippines in 1989. As the boat went down, the captain chanted amplified Hail Marys to calm the passengers.

In such paintings Oropallo’s interpretation of the dramatic event comes to us slowly, as if from a long way off. This distance is established, however, not by a lack of emotion but because of its powerful presence. These works seem to be more about the endurance and strength necessary to deal with adversity than about the nature of the events themselves. They are reflections on commitment: to years of practice and the faith that such practice implies. Her careful pacing in each work offers us the opportunity to experience the sorrow that, daily inundated with images of tragedy, we seem no longer able to feel.

Maria Porges is a writer and artist living in Oakland, California.



1. George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1972, p. 88.