San Francisco

Deborah Oropallo

Wirtz Art

Deborah Oropallo’s paintings might be classified as a new, piquant kind of Magic Realism. They don’t resemble the old, mid-century, mooning kind; less private, more assertive, and precisely melancholic, they live up to the term better, and more literally. The gem of this show was a small painting called Lemon Vanish, 1988. In it a lemon and a black top hat (props gleaned directly from Manet’s bag of tricks) occupy the center of a compact field, fixed by burnished swaths of light ocher and deep, icey green. A pair of perforated ellipses diagrammed on the hat’s crown testifies that the lemon is inside the hat. The joke on appearance is enjoyable because the painting itself is so lucid and forthright.

At 34, Oropallo has cultivated a remarkable range of skills and styles, from brisk trompe-l’oeil rendering to moody latherings of free-form paint. Still, her project continues to be a youthful one of pulling together a pictorial idiom and intuitive thematic premises brightly out of bedrock materials. The themes of the recent large pictures draw on Americana of a particular order: front-page newspaper stories of disasters, natural or technological, from the past hundred or so years. Lines of type depicted freehand across some of the canvases suggest a ghostly sort of “voice-over” antiphony. (They also recall the lettering in Mexican retablos.) Each image carries a proviso of survival, or at least the implication that, despite the magnitude of the calamity, life goes on. As ideas go, Oropallo’s are none too deep, but to the extent that they provide metaphors for picture-making, they manage. In Partial List of the Saved, 1988, three columns of names are limned over a profile image of the Titanic afloat; the rust-colored names are of passengers who drifted away from the wreck in lifeboats. Other pictures allude to tornadoes, an earthquake, a plane crash, a circus fire, a mining accident, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the recent drama of a girl trapped in a well. Uniqueness of incident is honored by a specificity of compositional attitude for each. The unifying factor is light: most of Oropallo’s big pictures contain an Eakins-ish light, broad and pale and impinged upon by multitudinous darks, a brand of chiaroscuro that amounts to its own form of Americana. Commanding the top quarter of Dictator, 1988, this light is prodigious; it sparks the composite imagery without interrupting the subterranean suspense within which half-focused memory objects merge.

Julia Moore (1847–1920), who was known as the Sweet Singer of Michigan, wrote awkward verses about such events as train wrecks, drownings, epidemics, and casualties of the Civil War. Moore’s work was unintentionally absurd and Oropallo’s is not; nevertheless, the parallel seems worth noting. Oropallo’s wit, when it shows, is sharper than the artist appears willing to allow—it’s shy of itself. Her pictorial sincerity outstrips her topical subject matter. Her most ambitious paintings—on their way to becoming “machines,” in the 19th-century, salon-blockbuster sense—communicate large-scale distress for which the ostensible correlatives (news items that trigger conditional feelings at best) seem comparatively picayune and remote. The smaller, plainer pictures, on the other hand, harbor no such dilemmas; they are armed with fate.

Bill Berkson