New York

Michele Zalopany


Michele Zalopany’s large charcoal-and-pastel drawings on paper fall into two distinct groups. One—renderings of formal gardens, villas, and fountains—recalls a host of similar pre-Oedipal ancien régime fantasies, including Alain Resnais’ and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Last Year at Marienbad, 1961, Kenneth Anger’s Eaux d’Artifice, 1953, and Jennifer Bartlett’s recent paintings. The other deals more overtly with notions of childhood, through pictures based on photographs. Most of the figures in these images are small girls, which suggests that the pictures might be directly autobiographical. But in fact the photographs Zalopany bases her work on are all public, taken from news photos, magazine ads, and postcards. Even the most snapshotlike of the group—The Sundays of Life, 1983, showing a well-dressed young mother in a park clutching her out-of-focus child—is based on a postcard of the Queen of Italy and her son.

The use of public photographs as pictorial armatures (in a kind of cultural/political version of photorealism) is familiar. To Zalopany, though, the media conventions she borrows seem almost invisible. The photographs she chooses are not thoroughly stereotypical, but instead depict people imperfectly caught in stereotypes. She uses them not as part of the usual sort of mass-media critique, but for the personal meanings they suggest. From the narrative rubble of public photographs she builds up a fictive but very personal family album, complete with its own nostalgic edge—most of the photographs are from the ’50s and before.

The dark chiaroscuro of these very large drawings (most are on the order of 4 feet by 5 feet) underscores the emotion-filled light that seems to bathe these scenes. In Riflessi Futuri, 1982, which shows a young girl reaching up to hang an ornament on a Christmas tree, Zalopany has transformed the cynically sentimental lighting of the original photograph—the child is lit by what seems to be an out-of-frame fireplace but was no doubt just a well-placed studio light—into a glow marked by the emotional sincerity of memory. Like a number of other artists today, Zalopany uses photographic cropping and syntax and the stereotypes of media to filter the emotional charge of her subjects, meanwhile playing up that charge through her sensuous handling of the charcoal and her use of intensely romantic lighting. In a drawing included in the “Selections” show at Artists Space she depicts a Turneresque (and Whistlerian) scene of a battleship exploding at night; her fountains and formal gardens also emphasize the swoony atmospheric qualities of those subjects. In her best work, though, she reaches through the canned clichés of her media sources to retrieve the original emotional moments they are designed to exploit.

Charles Hagen