Chicago

Mary Lou Zelazny

Peter Miller Gallery

There’s a nursery rhyme concerned with transubstantiation, suggesting that little boys are made of “snips and snails and puppydog tails” while “sugar and spice and everything nice” are the stuff of little girls. The 14 collage-paintings by Mary Lou Zelazny shown here, all from 1987, feature not-so-little girls made of dozens of printed images scavenged from the pages of magazines and catalogues and then combined within a painted composition. Each of these weirdly sensible figures is a densely overlaid composite of snippets from schematic diagrams, telephone directory pages, package labels, and a diverse array of advertisements, posed against an intentionally vulgar backdrop such as an urban night scene or a romantic sunset.

Zelazny’s work resembles, at least superficially, the inventions of Arcimboldo. Unlike her 16th-century predecessor, however, Zelazny finds her effects instead of making them. The image-fragments within the painted outlines of her female subjects are details taken out of context but bringing with them an echo of their previous existence. They function as a kind of disguise, an assembly that dissembles, instead of as a construction of categorically related elements that stand for the inner nature of the personage they suggest. This masklike aspect of Zelazny’s pictures aligns them with the work of other artists concerned with the presentation of the female self, as well as with the ideology of simulation.

The figure in Mrs. Columbus gazes into a handheld mirror that reflects a face made of illustrations from a home remodeling manual. Her hairdo is composed of, among other things, images of knotted rope, a salted pretzel, and the frosting of a chocolate cake. Her arms and torso are a maze of mechanical diagrams and a few floating paramecia, while what appears to be a chair in which she sits (or the flounces of her skirt) is stuffed with images of candy, slices of cake, gleaming bathroom fixtures, and a few foreign banknotes. Behind all this Zelazny has painted a garish harbor scene of shattered buildings and half-sunken ships silhouetted against a yellowish sky. This is not a New World depicted here but the ruins of the Old.

Dozens of television sets, clipped from the home-electronics pages of several catalogues, fill out the standing figure in Tebbé Embebbah (the title is a nonsense phrase). Various generic TV scenes are displayed on their screens, but the sets are used more for their clunky, boxlike shapes, which suggest blocks used in building an ancient idol. The figure emerges from a painted friezelike background of rows of pseudo-hieroglyphs and stylized cracks and fissures, accentuating the contradiction between ancient and modern.

Zelazny’s most compelling images are those in which the collage topography is most thoroughly saturated and stands out clearly from the painted portions of the work. The affected kitschiness of Zelazny’s rendered scenes falls far short of the bizarre conflations of objects and textures that comprise her figures and transform them into fascinating and inscrutable apparitions.

Buzz Spector