Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Pride and Prejudice

Deborah Oropallo at BAM


The Boise Art Museum's current exhibit of computer-aided, photo-based art by Bay Area artist Deborah Oropallo is a particularly relevant one. With an increasing number of artists relying on photographic sources and techniques, digital imagery and computer technology in their paintings, the debate over whether it violates the integrity of true art has become a hot topic.

This year's Whitney Biennial stirred things up by giving prominent placement to the work of Marilyn Minter, whose forceful images involve combining photographs using Photoshop software, which she projects onto a surface and traces to create super-realistic paintings. Art critics and publications have been giving a lot of play to the protestations among purists these works have provoked, weighing in on both sides. Oropallo's show at BAM elucidates both the extent to which artists are bending the rules in this regard and the startling results such impertinence can achieve. In the end, it's about expanding the mind as much as the medium.

Since before Andy Warhol's silk-screened appropriations of commercial imagery and the advent of photo-realism in the 1960s brought matters to a head, there has persisted a prejudice against paintings that assume the attributes of less noble art forms or made with something other that paintbrush, pigment and canvas. It seems remarkable that 40 years after the pluralistic post-modern revolution in visual art, viewers can still feel short-changed when confronted with works that challenge cherished, romanticized notions of what constitutes art. Viewers who are stuck behind this psychological hurdle are missing the point. As New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman has written: "Tools are tools, whether they are brushes or lenses. What artists make of them is the issue."

The Oropallo show at BAM is a timely experience, and a pleasing one at that. Comprised of three series of related works, it includes 34 pieces from 2003 through 2005 tracing the recent evolution of Oropallo's unique imagery. The show is titled "Twice Removed," a reference to the fact that what we see is a two-stage take-off from the physical world. All two-dimensional art is "once removed" in that we get an image of an object or scene or person rather than the actual thing, or else a non-objective abstract work. With "twice removed," we are getting an image of an image, taken from a photographic or Internet source, the manipulated medium being, say, software rather than pigment from a tube. As Curator Sandy Harthorn states in her catalog essay, "Twice removed, the marvel of painting with pixels, means trading physical control of the paint for the surprises discovered in a virtual palette."

With pride, Oropallo considers herself a painter, and rightfully so. Originally from New Jersey, she got her BFA in painting at Alfred University in western New York State, and went on to get her MA and MFA at the University of California, Berkeley in the early 1980s. Growing up in the New York City area, Oropallo was excited by the things being done by such Pop artists like Warhol and James Rosenquist, both of whom used photography a lot in their work not only for the connotations it had for the Pop aesthetic but as technology that made it possible to work with large-scale imagery. The influence of Rosenquist and Roy Lichtenstein is clear in her work at BAM.

In the 1980s, Oropallo paid close attention to contemporary German and American painters who were exploring new, imaginative ways to incorporate photographic sources into their art. In particular, Gerhard Richter, who turned photographs into painting subjects of haunting beauty, had a profound effect on artists like Oropallo interested in expanding their visual vocabulary with new technical tools. Over the last 20 years, Oropallo's own art has evolved from paintings grounded in photography to what the catalog describes as "lush hybrids of computer-generated minimalism."

Oropallo began this type of work about five years ago. The three series at BAM are Replica (2003), Pitfall (2004), and Stretch (2005), each is an improvement over the last. The end result in these photo-based artworks is an amalgam of different printmaking processes and computer programs (like PhotoShop or Painter), which she enhances or extends with acrylic pigment. Typically, her support is canvas stretched over aluminum panels, but she underplays or even eliminates the texture of the canvas by applying the acrylics with rollers rather than brushes.

Replica is the least compelling of the three series. Basically still lifes, it features static miniature objects which Oropallo sometimes alters, then photographs digitally, enlarging and transferring them to the canvas via a printing process. The best of these include "Free House," with its changing perspectives and down-and-out look of boarded-up prefab housing, and the four-legged landscape in Ewe.

Things literally get rolling in Pitfall, in what could be called an "action series" with cartoon effects that give it a strong Pop Art feel. Appropriating comic book graphics as backgrounds to threatening high-speed or free-fall scenarios, using blown-up digital photos of toys, balls of clothing or vegetative matter, Oropallo enhances the thrill by blurring the imagery with software and painting techniques. In "Overboard," a tumbling torrent of fancy furniture (dollhouse pieces made lifesize) creates a dramatic vertiginous affect. The whirlwind melees of "Fight" and "Kid Gloves" cry out for exclamations like "Pow!" and "Kaboom!" which have accompanied Lichtenstein's action scenes. There is a youthful energy and exuberance to these works without succumbing to kitsch.

The 2005 series Stretch is the most sophisticated of the three. It has the cool demeanor of minimalism even though these mostly abstract works are created out of a heightened realism. During this period, Oropallo was bedridden for six months after back surgery so she selected the images to use from the Web rather than taking her own photos. She also wanted to remove herself from making those initial choices and strive for greater immediacy and chance, which is why the results are so unique and varied.

The series' title refers to the metamorphosis to which Oropallo submits her images. Not only has the artist's hand all but disappeared in these works, but through calculated rearrangements and distortions, she pushes her subject past the point of recognition, surprisingly creating in the process precise, geometric abstractions. In pieces like "Sleep" and "Horizontal," she uses the repeating patterns of fabrics to create steely minimal works. Others, like "Edges" and "Snow White" achieve the luminosity of Dan Flavin's famous fluorescent light abstractions, with Oropallo's rich painterly palette looking like hard-edge Helen Frankenthalers. In "Blue House" the dark form behind the bands of chilly hues looms ominously like the Black Gate at Mordor.

These are not tricks and gimmicks for their own sake. This is refreshingly original art, instilled with intelligence, humor and the sensibility of an experienced painter, a good antidote for any lingering art prejudices.