Los Angeles

Renée Petropoulos

Rosamund Felsen Gallery

Renée Petropoulos revives the large-scale circular format of the tondo, so prevalent in the Renaissance, covering it with richly evocative shapes and symbols and adapting it to accommodate her fin-de-20th-century theoretical concerns. Most strikingly, she hollows out her large tondos (almost 50 inches in diameter), in such a way that their painterly surfaces—encrusted with webs of floral and animal forms, ribbons, heraldic motifs, and, in some cases, vague remnants of text—become chunky frames circumscribing central voids. Where the Madonna and Child should be lies the vacuous gallery wall, and the frame, usually made to function as a self-effacing accoutrement to the painted beauties within, aggressively asserts its pictorial potential.

Rendered in jewellike, decorative tones, the cryptic, richly colored flora and fauna circling the donut-shaped wood panels implied a subcutaneous (febrile and deeply organic) world of esoteric symbolism, an underground femininity that secretly works to develop an alternative to the rigid phallocentric viewing system staged by the conventional picture plane, with its purposeful tunneling of the gaze. Empty heraldic devices and cameos, themselves framed with baroque arabesques of simulated ironwork or carved wood, mirror the blankness of the central holes and refuse the signs of paternal identity usually proffered by these devices.

Petropoulos’ conceptual project was furthered in two small installations, in which she specified her interest in the framing and representation of identities. In one room, an array of small paintings of hats (in oval frames) functioned like a group of family portraits in a baronial manse, but again the images were mute. The generalized and laconic symbolism of professional and decorative headgear—from a bishop’s mitre to a flamboyant floral headpiece—replaced the traditional portrait.

The walls of a second small gallery were brilliantly colored in panels mimicking the wainscoting of a classical revival home, but this severe interior-decorating technique was playfully disrupted by the moldings which moved in stuttered fragments across the four walls, breaking the faux domestic space into disjunctive panels. Strange, palimpsestic traces of Arabic and Latin text hovered beneath veils of colored paint on one wall, while a profile sketch of George Washington sat gravely on another. These subtle ethnographic elements—the traces of cultural identities—were jarringly interrupted by large, rectangular picture frames with glaring white centers. Again, the viewer was faced with a deep void where a picture (some kind of symbol of identity, cultural “progress,” or allegorical human meaning) should have been.

Rather than projecting ourselves into Petropoulos’s paintings, identifying ourselves as whole in relation to a perspectively rendered “window” onto the “real,” we were forced to face our own blankness—the hole that is the center of each picture. With these pieces, the artist managed to give us both opulence, in the carefully orchestrated schemes of deep color and symbolic form, and a complex but pointed conceptual austerity, suggesting that what we are, in the words of Petropolous, “in memory of: in hope of” may always already elude us in the blankness of the framed abyss that is the work of art.

Amelia Jones