San Francisco

Deborah Oropallo

Wirtz Art

“Stretch” was the title of Deborah Oropallo’s recent exhibition at Stephen Wirtz Gallery, and the term applies as much to the vertical blurring that distinguishes many of the paintings as to their maker’s apparent compulsion to continually challenge and extend her practice. Since the 1980s, the artist’s shows have been marked by some surprisingly sudden shifts in direction, but she has remained committed to challenging the dismissal of painting as moribund. While Oropallo no longer paints in oil, she continues to hone a sensibility concerned above all with the manipulation of pigment on canvas. The fourteen new works in this show are digital acrylic and pigment prints on canvas, the surfaces of which have a subtle waxy sheen that lends the surface a painterly aura.

Thematically, the works, with their idealized images of houses and their Snow White figurines, relate to some generic fairy tale of a perfect home and family. However, each of them has undergone some degree of obscuring distortion. Yellow House (all works 2005), like most works in the show, suggests vertical motion. The pitched-roof single-family dwelling of the title seems to have been caught in the midst of collapse, or is perhaps being perceived through a haze of confusion. Is this a scale model of a home or the real thing? Oropallo adds thin vertical lines at regular intervals that suggest prison bars, and slits that offer glimpses of the image in sharper focus, but we never see the home with complete clarity.

Employing a similar strategy, Snow White, the show’s centerpiece, achieves an even greater ambiguity and a more dynamic, painterly use of color. Areas of yellow, orange, blue, and brown seem to float like pigment thrown into water or subjected to the firm vertical pressure of a Gerhard Richter squeegee. Here the blurring takes us still further from the source and toward quasi-expressionistic territory. The manipulation introduces an appearance of depth and layering that, besides contributing formal complexity, hints at a psychological dimenson. In Refill, Oropallo alludes to another kind of influence: mother’s little helpers. A series of horizontally stacked sections, suggesting slices of acid red Jell-O is punctuated by clusters of white circles that appear to be falling into view from above. Though cropped and blur red the objects depicted are identifiable as orange-tinted prescription bottles and round white pills: a pharmaceutical gloss on the idea of layered vision.

There’s tension here between the digital and the analog, but this is far from the be-all and end-all of Oropallo’s project. The artist remains engaged in a rigorous investigation of the continuing viability of painting in a culture of visual overload, while staying firmly grounded through the use of common subjects with broad resonance. Such a foundation may well foster experimentation, but some of the works in the show, like Waiting, a clearly readable image of an Energizer Bunny–like toy blurred by movement, are too literal to rise above their sources. More often, though, when Oropallo succeeds in balancing form and content, the thesis of painting’s demise evaporates into the transformative possibilities of an artist’s expansive, and expanding, vision.

Glen Helfand